Is it Time to Hang up the Keys?

taking the keys

by Paul Gach, Visiting Angels 

Don’t just assume that because of age a person is not a safe driver. Many capable 85+ year olds are safer drivers than younger drivers. One must consider the person’s physical and cognitive capabilities and if their driving is affected. Often, due to a person’s vision, hearing, physical mobility and/or reaction time, driving may no longer be safe. Since skills change over time, personal and driving behaviors need to be observed periodically. Some observations can be made anytime; however, it is important to ride with the person.

Anytime observations:

  • Impaired hearing, vision or movement (difficulty moving head, hands or legs etc.)
  • Problems following instructions, forgetfulness
  • Falls asleep during conversations
  • New or changed medications
  • Appears fearful or scared of driving or uses a co-pilot
  • Scrapes or dents on the car or recent tickets
  • Listen for clues in stories about driving

Driving Observations:

  • Fails to stop at stop signs, lights or notice pedestrians (take immediate action)
  • Drives on the wrong side of the road or in the shoulder (take immediate action)
  • Confuses the gas and brake pedals (take immediate action)
  • Stops in traffic for no apparent reason (take immediate action)
  • Delayed response to potential danger or easily distracted
  • Gets lost in familiar places
  • Makes abrupt lane changes, braking or acceleration, rides the brake
  • Drifts in to other lanes or drives at inappropriate speeds
  • Trouble navigating turns, especially left-hand turns
  • Parking inappropriately, hitting curbs
  • Trouble navigating directions, backs up after missing an exit
  • Reacts slowly to turning on head lights or wipers
  • Notices drivers honking but doesn’t seem to understand
  • Decreased confidence and/or increased agitation or irritation

Armed with this information you can correctly decide whether it is time to “have the talk” with them.

A driver’s license signifies more than the ability to drive a car; it is a symbol of freedom and self-sufficiency. In my father’s case, he was more upset and depressed when he lost his driver’s license than when he lost his right leg to diabetes. During your conversation, remember: Be respectful. Remember this is a life-changing event that takes away part of their freedom.

Give specific examples. Don’t generalize, use examples from your observations about their conditions, and their driving.

Help find alternatives. Research transportation options or offer rides when possible. Other possibilities:

  • Area Agencies on Aging will be aware of transportation services
  • Ride Sharing. Share transportation responsibilities and costs with family and neighbors.
  • American Red Cross may assist with transportation to and from critical medical appointments.
  • Public Bus Service may offer transportation for disabled elderly aged 60+ at a minimal cost to medical appointments, dialysis, senior nutrition centers, paid employment, and grocery shopping…
  • Local churches and nonprofit organizations may have a network of volunteers

Understand the difficulty of the transition. Don’t dismiss their feelings, but try to help with the transition. If it is safe, try slowly transitioning them out of driving by limiting nighttime or interstate driving. Exchange their license for an identification card from the DMV for identification purposes. However, don’t be surprised if it takes several conversations if not an argument to convince them.

If this fails, the next step is to enlist the help of impartial professionals. If possible, inform them of your observations before the meeting so they understand your concern. Older people are more inclined to take recommendations from clergy or doctors.

Find strength in numbers. If more than one family member or friend has noticed, it’s less likely to be taken as nagging. They may also listen to an impartial party, such as a doctor or attorney or you may request a medical examination from the DMV.