When It's Time To Take The Keys

We see it on a consistent basis – news reports about a senior driving their car into the front of a convenience store, an elderly man heading the wrong way on an interstate highway, an octogenarian slamming on the gas instead of the brake and smashing into rows of care. These stories become the objects of jokes from late night comedians and the fodder for radio talk shows, but there is nothing funny about seniors who no longer have the faculties to get behind the wheel of a car.

The CDC reports that in 2015, there were more than 40 million licensed drivers 65 and older in the United States with that number increasing every year -- and with this increase comes the risks of life threatening injuries and even death for the driver as well as the public.

According to police records, fatal crashes begin to increase significantly for drivers 70-74 years of age and are highest among those over 85 years of age. Of this group, males by far, have higher rates of fatalities. These are attributed to declines in eyesight, cognitive functioning and physical changes which may make it difficult to react quickly.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cites these twenty signs that may indicate it is time to reevaluate the driving privilege for the senior:

1. Drifts into other lanes

2. Straddles lanes

3. Makes sudden lane changes

4. Ignores or misses stop signs and traffic signals

5. Gets easily confused in traffic

6. Brakes or stops abruptly without cause

7. Accelerates suddenly without reason

8. Coasts to a near stop amid moving traffic

9. Presses simultaneously on the brake and accelerator while driving

10. Has difficulty seeing pedestrians, objects and other vehicles

11. Is increasingly nervous when driving

12. Drives at significantly slower than the posted speed

13. Backs up after missing an exit or road

14. Difficultly reacting quickly as they process multiple images or sounds

15. Problems with neck flexibility

16. Gets lost or disoriented easily, even in familiar places

17. Fails to use the turn signal, or keeps the signal on without changing lanes

18. Increased "close calls" and "near misses"

19. Has been issued two or more traffic tickets or warnings in the past two years

20. Dents and scrapes on the car or on fences, mailboxes, garage doors, and curbs

If you are concerned about a senior’s ability to drive, have a conversation with them. The first step may be to recommend to them a driving course to refresh them on their skills. AARP offers a variety of driver safety courses nationwide. Visit the AARP website for more information.

Be aware of the signs when a senior should no longer be driving.

But what if their driving skills have regressed so much that even a refresher course may not be able to help? It then becomes time to discuss giving up the car with your loved one. This task is not as easy as it may sound.

Do you remember when you first starting driving and you did something wrong and your parents took away the keys? Even though it was temporary, do you recall how it felt to have that independence taken away, albeit briefly?

Now imagine a senior, who is already struggling with the loss of memory, physical capabilities and eyesight. For most, the car and the ability to travel is the only semblance of independence that they can hold onto. Now someone tells them that piece will be taken away?

If this discussion must take place, I suggest having a plan in place before sitting down with them. Let’s look at what this might look like.

  1. Come prepared with the evidence. Now, this is not court but having a case prepared to show evidence to the senior is the best way to go. Have a list of traffic tickets, accidents, damage to the vehicle and even neighbors who may have witnessed unsafe driving. Be specific. Think of it this way, would you rather be the one to tell your loved one it’s time to stop or should it be a judge in court in front of the public and maybe even make the newspapers?

  2. If you can’t do it, talk to a professional. Have a doctor write a script stating no driving, perhaps a local clergy could have the discussion if you find it too difficult.

  3. Make of list of the cost saving that giving up the keys would amount to. No gas, no oil changes, no insurance, etc.

  4. Have a list of alternative transportation arrangements in place or a list of suggestions

  5. Explore home health care agencies, grocery delivery services and meal delivery services

The things I mentioned above are concrete steps, but what about the emotional content of the conversation? I suggest this:

  1. Don’t play hardball and make accusations. Taking away the keys for some could be the last piece of independence for the senior and represents a radical life event. Approach this conversation with empathy. Put yourself in their place and how would you feel.

  2. Make sure other family members are involved with the conversation’

  3. Be honest and treat the senior like an adult and not a child. Remember, sitting with you is the person that stood by your side decades earlier when you first picked up the keys, or when you had relationship problems or were sick. Make sure the conversation is adult to adult, no accusations, no finger pointing, just a talk about the truth and about the dangers. Honesty, “We don’t want you to get hurt or to hurt others” is the best way to share your concerns.

  4. Explain the alternatives and even involvement in a ride sharing program that could help them meet others in a similar predicament. Getting old is not a sin, we will all be there and with age comes limitations. It’s a reality.

  5. You could withdrawal the car slowly. For instance, no driving after dark, or in the rain. Stay off highways and no children or grandchildren in the car.

  6. If you have tried every way to convince them that driving is no longer an option and yet they continue to try and drive, you may want to disable the car, especially of it is someone with dementia. Removing the battery cable or other electrical components gets the job done.

There could also be other issues besides age that could also be a reason to stop driving. Vision issues, side effects from medications, heart problems such as tachycardia, pain and even addiction could be a reason to take away the keys.

Once you have accomplished the task, help the person set up rides and other forms of assistance until they are comfortable doing it themselves. Remember, you have taken away one form of self-sufficiency but now you are helping them establish another form of being self-sufficient.

I have spoken with many family members who had to go through this process with a loved one and after the keys were taken away, a sense of relief was present not only for the family members but for the senior themselves. In fact, one family told me their mother said some months later, “I don’t know why I don’t do this earlier”.

Please click the link below to download and print my free handout on having this most difficult conversation with your loved one.

Attorney Connelly practices in the area of elder law. This area of law involves Medicaid planning and asset protection advice for those individuals entering nursing homes, planning for the possibility of disability through the use of powers of attorney for the both health care and finances, guardianship, estate planning, probate and estate administration, preparation of wills, living trusts and special or supplemental needs trusts. He represents clients primarily in the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) in 2008. Attorney Connelly is licensed to practice before the Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Federal Bars.

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