When Is It Time to Take Away the Car Keys?

You’re riding in the passenger seat with your elder at the wheel and wondering: Is it really safe? Not just for you and your loved one, but for everyone else on the road?

Maybe she ran a stop sign without realizing it more than once recently, or perhaps he seems to have trouble finding his way to familiar places. Her reflexes aren’t what they used to be. He uses poor judgment in traffic.

One of the hardest decisions you may have to make with or for your aging parent is when to take away the car keys. Driving is an early marker of maturity and independence. It’s often extremely hard for your loved one to give up this sense of freedom willingly.

If Your Loved One’s Driving Is Risky, It’s Time to Act
But when his or her driving is truly putting your loved one and others at risk, you need to step in. To assess your elder’s ability to continue driving, ask yourself these questions:

  • How comfortable are you in the car with your loved one at the wheel?
  • Would you allow your children to be in the car with him or her driving?
  • Would your elder know what to do if there is car trouble or a detour on a familiar route?

If the answer to any or all of these questions is “no,” then it’s time to act. An honest, empathetic discussion is always best. Your loved one may respond with his or her own concerns and describe ways in which he or she is already imposing limits, such as only driving locally or not driving at night. But if the problem is memory impairment, these self-imposed limits are often not enough.

A Professional Driving Evaluation Can Help You Make Your Case
To avoid getting mired in dueling points of view, it helps to get an objective assessment. Arrange for the two of you to talk with your loved one’s physician and request a driving evaluation.

Here in Central Massachusetts, there are two programs. Your Geriatric Care Manager can recommend others for your area:

Fairlawn Hospital Driving Evaluation (508-471-9322). You’ll need a physician’s written referral for this evaluation (a note on a prescription pad is sufficient). The two-part evaluation begins with an in-office assessment by an occupational therapist who evaluates your elder’s vision, strength and coordination, decision-making ability, mapping ability and reaction time. If your loved one passes, then he or she progresses to the driving exam with a certified driving examiner. The physician receives a formal report to share directly with your elder. Contact Fairlawn for pricing; the evaluation is not covered by insurance.

Central Mass Safety Council (CMSC) (508-835-2333) Your elder undergoes a two-hour driving evaluation in a driver’s ed car (dual brake control) with an instructor who will provide feedback. The CMSC also provides driving evaluation and instructions to individuals who have sustained a medical event such as a stroke. There is no formal report included in this evaluation, which costs about $125 and is not covered by insurance. This evaluation is not as thorough as the hospital-based approach, but may be more appealing to your elder.

Whichever route you choose, remember to begin your conversation from a loving place. When the time comes, you, too, will struggle with giving up your independence. Understand your loved one’s needs, and work together to ensure everyone’s safety.

President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified geriatric care manager. Drawing on more than 30 years of professional experience in geriatric care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.

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