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Part II: Time to Turn Over the Car Keys?

Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More

If you conclude through a formal assessment or by your own observation that your parent’s ability to drive is impaired it is time to begin addressing the issue. However, accomplishing this goal may not be easy. Any suggestion that car keys be relinquished could be met with resistance, frustration, anger, or hostility. The best approach is a gentle one that seeks common ground with your parent.

First, attempt to have a conversation with your parent. Focus this conversation on his or her functional capacity, not their age or health. Some older adults are very safe and attentive drivers well into their 80s and live with health conditions that don’t compromise their ability to drive.

Prepare for the conversation by gathering concrete examples of why you believe your parent is no longer a safe driver. You, along with other family members, might ride along with your parent a few times before the conversation so that you have first-hand knowledge of these behaviors.

You should not approach the conversation in a way that is forceful or suggests taking control but rather as a means of providing feedback for your parent.

  • Share your concerns about their declining functional abilities, such as missing traffic signals, tickets they’ve recently received and erratic lane changes. Go over the reasons and the evidence of why you believe driving is now dangerous for them.
  • Share information about similar situations in which a driver refused to stop driving when it was time and then later crashed or caused injury.
  • Express your concern for their safety and suggest that it is possibly time to “retire” from driving.
  • Allow your parent to express their feelings about your observations. Listen with respect and sensitivity.
  • Offer alternatives to help them get to the places they want and need to go (see Transportation alternative for older adults below).

Transportation alternatives for older adults

When restricting driving privileges becomes an issue, you can ease the transition by investigating alternative methods of getting from place to place. Here are some options you can make available for transportation in place of a personal motor vehicle.

  • Use friends and family. People will often say, “Let me know if I can do anything to help.” Create a list of people willing to help your parent with transportation needs. Write out names and phone numbers and give it to your parent as a resource.
  • Public Transportation. Gather information about bus routes, train schedules and taxi services. See whether they offer discounts for older adults or those with disabilities. Calculate round-trip fares from your parent’s home to frequently visited locations, such as the grocery store, doctor’s office, barber shop, or library.
  • Government funded transportation. Investigate availability of government-funded transportation for people with disabilities. Call your local Area on Aging Office to get more information.
  • Delivery Services. To reduce the need for trips outside the home, look for pharmacies, office supply stores, grocery stores and other businesses that deliver goods and services to the home.

When your parent needs some additional incentive

For some older adults, a respectful and empathic conversation with their adult children is all that is needed to get them to stop driving. For others, it may take many conversations to help them see the necessity of giving up their driving privileges. If the conversation does not go well or your parent refuses to give up the keys, here are some added measures to consider.

  • Sell or disable the car. If the car won’t be driven, it makes sense to sell it. If your parent is attached to his or her motor vehicle, you might consider keeping it for the short-term but disabling it by removing the battery.
  • Hide or replace the car keys. If the car remains in the family, someone must control access to all copies of the keys. Lock them in a safe place. If your parent resists or refuses to hand over his or her set of keys, quietly replace the car key with one that looks like it, but that doesn’t work in the vehicle.
  • Ask your doctor for help. Some families turn to their parent’s physician for help. Doctors are perceived as authority figures and your parent may listen to their advice to stop driving before they will comply with your requests. Doctors can often bring objectivity to the situation that family members often cannot. Many doctors understand the need for this type of intervention and will be willing to assist family members if asked. In some cases, doctors will write the words “Do Not Drive” on a prescription slip and give it to your parent. In other situations, you may need to ask the doctor to file a request for re-examination of your loved one’s driving abilities by the state driver’s licensing authority.

You can also put your parent in touch with an older peer who has already given up driving. This can sometimes bring a hopeful perspective that there is still quality to life after you give up the keys. It often is simply a matter showing your parent that they can still go where they want with the transportation alternatives that are available.

Regardless of how you arrive at the final decision, realize that giving up driving privileges is an emotionally difficult transition for most older adults. But you can make this transition less difficult by taking a gentle, respectful approach and using the many available resources at your disposal. And as difficult as the transition might be for some, it may be a decision that saves or preserves your parent’s life for years to come.

Keep Reading By Author Gary Gilles, LCPC
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