Difficult Conversations: Giving Up the Car Keys

Some elderly adults decide on their own to stop driving or limit when and where they drive, but more often a senior’s adult child or caregiver is the first to broach this subject. Talking about giving up the car keys can be an emotionally charged and difficult conversation for all involved, but it can be critical to the safety of the older driver and others on the road.

Warning Signs of Unsafe Driving

The first step in this process is riding with the older driver to assess his or her driving skills and see firsthand if there are any indicators of unsafe driving. According to AARP, some warning signs of unsafe driving include:

  • Delayed response to unexpected situations
  • Becoming easily distracted while driving
  • Decrease in confidence while driving
  • Having difficulty moving into or maintaining the correct lane of traffic
  • Hitting curbs when making right turns or backing up
  • Getting scrapes or dents on the car, garage, or mailbox
  • Having frequent close calls
  • Driving too fast or too slow for road conditions

If you notice any of these warning signs, it’s time for a discussion about stopping driving or limiting driving to daylight hours and essential errands. AARP offers a free online seminar called We Need to Talk to help its members prepare for this conversation.

Encourage a Thoughtful Discussion

Introduce the subject of your loved one’s driving skills by asking a nonthreatening question, such as “How are doing with your driving?” or “Are you as comfortable driving as you used to be?” The response may include an honest self-assessment, complaints about others’ bad driving habits, or reasons why the senior can’t give up driving.

Reflexive listening—rephrasing what the person says—conveys support that encourages the senior driver to continue talking and reflect on his or her driving skills. Acknowledge the difficulties that giving up driving presents. Also discuss the benefits of not driving: savings on auto insurance, car maintenance, and gasoline. Other issues to consider are liability risks in the event of a fatal or serious accident caused by the senior driver.

Don’t expect decisions to be made during this initial conversation. Leave the door open for future discussions.

Identify Potentially Correctable Causes of Poor Driving

If your loved one acknowledges having difficulty driving, determine if a medical condition is the cause. Make appointments with a physician and eye doctor to see if medication side effects, drug interactions, or poor vision is the source of the issue. Medication changes or stronger glasses could correct the matter.

Taking a senior driving refresher course to improve driving skills and reinforce knowledge of traffic laws could be helpful. AARP, AAA, and commercial driving schools offer these courses.

Engage Others in Confiscating the Keys

If an impaired senior driver won’t willingly hand over the keys, enlist the help of others:

  • Physicians: The American Medical Association (AMA) encourages physicians to provide counsel to caregivers on medical and health conditions, medication side effects, and other concerns. Doctors are urged to talk with their senior patients about their driving skills and even ask for and accept the car keys.
  • Optometrists/Ophthalmologists: In line with AMA recommendations, an eye doctor can request the car keys if poor, uncorrectable vision makes driving unsafe.
  • State Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV): Caregivers in some states may request that a senior loved one receive a request from the DMV for a current vision exam, paper driving exam, or road test. This request typically arrives before a license renewal.*
  • Family Attorney: Consult with your senior loved one’s attorney about the risks to the senior’s estate if he or she causes a serious accident and is sued by a victim or a victim’s family. The attorney might agree to meet with your loved one to explain the potential consequences of impaired driving and present reasons to give up the keys.

Taking the Keys

The best course of action is getting a senior loved one to voluntarily give up the keys. Sometimes, however, this isn’t possible. An episode of impaired driving—from a bad driving decision, causing an accident, or a health issue related to a medical treatment or medication—can be the impetus for taking away the car keys. You might say that you will keep the keys until your loved one feels or acts like his or her better self.

Disabling a vehicle so it’s inoperable is another option, unless your loved one enlists the assistance of a local mechanic. If you have a vehicle physically removed, share this with your loved one or he or she may report the vehicle stolen. Also be aware that some seniors who have had their vehicle removed have been known to purchase another vehicle without telling family members.

Help Ease the Pain of Not Driving

Giving up driving represents a loss of independence and mobility for many seniors. And after decades of using a driver’s license for identification, what will they use? Let your senior know that a driver’s license can be exchanged for an identification card at the DMV.

To help your senior adjust to no longer driving—and mind this life change a little less—provide an array of alternatives:

  • Offer to drive them to favorite activities, the grocery store, and appointments, and set up a schedule on a calendar a few weeks in advance to calm their transportation concerns
  • Create a list of friends and relatives (and their phone numbers) who are willing to take them shopping and to appointments, and suggest ways that your senior can reciprocate (baking cookies, making a special meal, sewing, handyman projects, etc.)
  • Provide information on local senior transportation services
  • Ride the bus, if available, with your senior to build their confidence in taking the bus around town on their own
  • Help them develop new interests or continue longtime interests that don’t require driving, like gardening, walking, painting, scrapbooking, sewing, doing crossword puzzles, reading or listening to books on tape, etc.
  • Check in with your loved one frequently to decrease their feelings of isolation, and make sure they are included in family events and outings

Through caring discussions, careful planning, and empathy, you can help your senior loved one transition to life without driving.

*In New Hampshire, beginning at age 75, and every five years thereafter, drivers must complete a road test with an examiner in addition to passing a vision test with 20/40 vision in each eye.







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