Elderly Driving: When to Take the Car Keys Away from Parents

  • by Nina Plonka RN, BSN, Director of Long Term Care Insurance

“Nice seeing you dad, drive home safely” I am sure we have all uttered those words and meant them.  They have a more gut wrenching meaning when your father is in his middle 80’s or 90’s with poor vision and reflex times and drives off after dinner.  Do you wait patiently for the phone to be assured that he has arrived home?  Are you frantic when he forgets to call when he gets home?  You are not alone.  People are living longer, and with that come heart wrenching decisions that fall upon the children.  “When do I take my father or mother’s keys away from them?”  It’s hard to admit to yourself that your parents are now “Elderly Drivers”.

I have a client who was 92 years old when he went to renew his driver’s license. The DMV did renew it and gave him 5 years on the license renewal.  He called me and said “Nina, they gave me 5 years on my license. I don’t even buy green banana anymore and they gave me 5 years.”  He laughed and did live another 3 years but his family struggled each and every day with when to take those keys away (which they did about 6 months after his license was renewed).

Medically, if a client has vision problems such as glaucoma or macular degeneration should they consider maybe only driving in the daytime?  When should elderly driving be stopped? Physical strength to drive is another key factor that needs to be considered.  If your parent is sedentary at home then their muscles strength may have diminished as well as reaction time to things like other drivers, traffic lights, and changing road conditions.

Medications that are taken can be one of the important factors that might be easily fixed.  Have your parent’s medications reviewed by the physician to determine if there is duplication or factors that would hinder driving safely.    All these factors would need to be considered to determine safety.  Age alone however, would not preclude the elderly from driving but there are laws regarding senior citizen driving.

The biggest factor to deciding to take your parents keys is mental or cognitive issues.  If a client has known memory lapses, confusion or altered mental capacity for varying reasons then driving a motor vehicle is just not an option. There have been many reported cases where individuals leave the home (seemingly cognizant) and then get lost along the way. 

Taking car keys away from elderly driver is one of those life changing difficult decisions.  If you take the keys are you breaking their spirit?  Who will drive them to the grocery store?  Who will take them to the doctor’s appointment?  Will you be cutting them off from their social life?  The facts are that the most driving accidents in our nation are people between the ages of 16 to 19; the elderly driving statistics are not the largest group.   However, the elderly drive amongst those 16-19 year olds and in there might be a perfect storm.   Young drivers are inexperienced and senior citizen drivers have decreased reaction times and those two concepts could prove to be deadly.   One would automatically assume that the cause of the accident was the elderly driver.

When concerned about the senior citizen driver (your parents), what can you do?

  • Inspect your elderly parent’s car for dings or dents.
  • Review medications with the physician at the next appointment or review online yourself and then ask for an appointment.
  • Drive along with your elderly driver and see how they do and note what concerns you see.
  • Research transportation options for some events (MD appointments, Grocery store).
  • Research in home companion care for events that require leaving the home.
  • Register for a Mature Driving Course to keep their skills up.

If you do find yourself at the point of having to take the keys from your parents the key is to be honest, bring the facts and be understanding of the loss this might bring.   Good Luck!

Posted in: Family Issues, Elderly Care

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