taking your parents car keys

Taking Your Parent's Car Keys

Remember how concerned your parents were as you were learning to drive? As a child of an aging parent, you might find yourself with similar concerns when your parent’s driving skills begin to go downhill. How do you know when a parent should stop driving? And, how do you take away the car keys without causing a family feud or hurt feelings?

How to Look For Signs

There’s a misconception that older people shouldn’t be driving anymore. Age isn’t necessarily an indicator of driving skills. Some definite markers that a person might not be safe on the road are as follows:

  • Driving too fast or too slow
  • Taking risks when making a lane change
  • Making unsafe left turns
  • Getting lost more often
  • Trouble reading road signs or following traffic rule 

Another trouble sign might be if your parent is asking you when it’s safe to turn, or if there are other cars behind them on the right or left.

If you can’t be in the car with your parent, check out the garage.

  • Are there nicks and scrapes on the door frame?
  • Do the neighbors report near misses as your parent backs out of the driveway?
  • Are your parents are beginning to monitor their own abilities by avoiding night or freeway driving or never driving alone?
One spouse may begin to notice unsafe habits of the other spouse, but many times might talk to their children before talking with his/her partner. Recognizing that the situation could mean a loss of independence for one or both parents requires a bit of diplomacy on everyone’s part.

How to Frame Your Conversation 

When you notice safety problems, it’s important to use specific examples and to have your discussion in a related context. For example, it wouldn’t be good to tell mom or dad at Christmas dinner you don’t think they should be driving anymore because you don’t think it’s safe. Better to wait until you get home from an actual drive to say something like...  “Dad, did you notice that you turned left on a red light? Did you see the color or were you having trouble paying attention? You could hurt yourself or someone else.” Explain why you are concerned with a very specific reason.

Discuss the Situation with the Family Doctor 

The driving conversation is hard for kids to have with parents. Fortunately, many parents will listen to their doctors. A primary care doctor or a neurologist (if dementia or Alzheimer’s is suspected) can recommend a driving evaluation program, a special clinic where an occupational therapist can test driver skills based on standardized norms, such as that offered by Virtua Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation.

A two-hour evaluation includes all the skills a driver uses: vision, perception, cognition, range of motion in neck and back for looking and checking blind spots, strength in arms and legs, reaction time tests, balance assessment and coordination testing.

The clinic coordinates with a driving school that can evaluate road performance. This includes evaluating the person’s ability to merge safely, maintain speed limits, have good reaction times, and park properly, among other skills.

Both test reports are sent back to the referring physician for a final decision on driving ability. The process is done through a third-party’s fair evaluation based on norms. The results are specific and the recommendation to drive or not to drive is given by the doctor.

Offer Alternatives 

For most people, the loss of a driver’s license is a difficult milestone. The family needs to support parents by offering alternative transportation from other family members, friends, or community services.

“Taking the keys” is a process shared by family and professionals that can be handled using specific facts, special care, and a large dose of sensitivity—easing one of life’s important transitions for parents who should no longer be behind the wheel.

Updated March 15, 2017

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