Time To Take the Keys Away?

"I'm really sorry, Dad, but I'm going to have to ask you to give me your car keys."

It's one of the hardest things an adult child will ever say to a parent. But not dealing responsibly with this situation could have tragic consequences.

Witness the recent news story about an 86-year-old man in California who inadvertently stepped on the gas pedal instead of the brake as he approached a crowded outdoor market. His car plowed through the crowd, killing 10 and injuring as many as 50 others.

We learned later that the man had a history of reckless driving going back a decade or more. People who knew the man produced a videotape of him crashing into a retaining wall 10 years before. At the time, everyone thought it was funny.

Choosing the right time

So, what's an adult child to do? Take the keys away the first time Grandma accidentally scrapes the side of the car on the garage? When she clips another vehicle as she pulls into a parking space at a restaurant? After she's been ticketed by police for speeding through a school zone?

Many seniors are able to operate a car safely into their 80s and beyond. Most will voluntarily adjust their driving habits when they realize that cataracts are affecting their night vision, for example. But what about those who no longer show this kind of discernment?

According to the National Motorists Association, the primary cause of serious accidents involving elderly drivers is diseases which effect cognitive abilities like memory, judgment and understanding. Diseases like Alzheimer's account for the majority of accidents caused by elderly drivers.

Before you act

Before you jump to your worst-case scenario, there are some factors to consider in evaluating your loved one's fitness to drive:

Are your loved one's driving habits being affected by a short-term emotional disturbance, such as the death of a spouse or friend, a change in circumstances or absentmindedness brought on by stress? If so, suggest to your elder that perhaps they should let someone else do the driving for awhile, until things settle down.

Is there a chronic pattern of traffic violations such as running stoplights, speeding or damage to other vehicles? If so, your loved one is becoming a dangerous driver. It's time to confront the issue.

Points to ponder

According to statistics on driving and the elderly, older drivers are more likely to be involved in multiple-vehicle accidents than younger drivers, including teenagers. The elderly are also more likely to be issued traffic citations for failing to yield, turning improperly and running red lights and stop signs all indicators of decreased driving ability.

Statistics also suggest that a person 65 or older is more likely to be severely injured in an accident and more likely to die than a younger person in the same circumstances. Fatal crashes rise sharply after an individual turns 70.

As you evaluate your older loved one's driving skills, take into account the following conditions and if remedial driver's training might help:

  • Loss of hearing acuity. Does your loved one react to honking horns, screeching tires, emergency sirens? If not, have him/her tested for hearing loss. Also, insist on refresher driving classes designed specifically for the deaf and seniors.
  • Loss of visual acuity. Contrast sensitivity (the ability to detect sharp borders and lighting changes) can make it difficult to see road dividers and other road markings. It can also make night driving or driving on extremely bright days very difficult. Have your elder's eyes checked and fitted for tinted lenses or a visor. Limit driving to times when vision is least likely to be impaired.
  • Chronic diseases and physical impairment. If arthritis, muscle degeneration, Parkinson's or other physical limitations are affecting your loved one's range of motion or his ability to respond in an emergency situation, enroll him in a class for disabled drivers.
  • Medications. Know the side-effects of your loved one's medications (drowsiness, slowed motor skills, watery eyes, etc.). Talk to your loved one's physician about which meds may affect driving skills, as well as the correct way to take them (i.e., how do they interact?).

Knowing precisely when it's time to ask your elder to surrender their driving privileges is not an exact science. It's also traumatizing for the caregiving son or daughter and potentially devastating to the loved one.

For most seniors, driving a car represents mobility, freedom and human contact. If the privilege is taken away, it can mark the beginning of social isolation and total dependence on others to meet physical and transportation needs. It's a chilling thought for any adult and men may be especially affected.

The conversation

Before discussing the decision to suspend an elder's driving privileges, do some research. Locate agencies that provide transportation for seniors. Depending on where you live, there may be city busses or trains convenient to where your loved one lives. Provide him or her with maps and information on bus schedules, taxi fares, etc., then be prepared to volunteer to ride with her a couple of times till she feels comfortable with these new ways of getting around.

Resolve to talk to your elderly loved one reasonably and respectfully about options not condescendingly, as to a child.

Introduce the subject gently: "Mom, I've noticed that you are having a hard time making out the lines on the road and you sometimes cross into oncoming traffic would you say that's true?" then, "Mom, you've had a lot of near-misses on the road and I'm afraid you may get hurt or accidentally hurt somebody else We all love you, and we want you to be with us for a long time, so I think it's time we looked at other options for transportation. Do you understand?"

You'll likely have to state it very clearly: "Mom, I'll need to ask you for your car keys."

There may be tears, protest, anger. But as one who cares and sees the situation objectively, you are responsible for ensuring the safety of your loved one and other people on the road. If you don't, the consequences could be far worse than the temporary pain of having to take away a set of car keys.

The flip side of this decision is that you as the caregiving son or daughter may also be required to adjust your schedule in order to accommodate the transportation needs of your elderly parent.

In short, not only is your loved one's lifestyle going to change radically, yours will, too. It's now your responsibility to ensure he/she gets to the grocery store, arrives on time for doctor's appointments and is able to pick up important prescriptions. If close relatives live in the vicinity, you may enlist their help.

As we and our parents age, our roles also change sometimes subtly, sometimes in ways that turn our lives upside down. But in God's plan, honoring our aging loved ones is not negotiable. Pray for His strength and guidance as you take on the caretaking role. Honor your aging parent, and God will most certainly honor you, His faithful servant.

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