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Practical Caregiving

How to Reasonably Take Away the Car Keys

By Jean Donahue

  I was lucky when Dad reached the point that he shouldn't drive. He had a stroke and his mind and body didn't work together very well for a while. At first he thought the car was a horse and buggy! He liked my team of horses and asked me if his team was at his place! When he had completely recovered from the stroke, he wanted to try driving again. I tried everything I could to prevent his driving, but one day he decided that he was going to drive his car. He stubbornly walked to the car and got in the driver's seat. (We lived in a small town and there were no cars or people around). I ran to the other side of the car and jumped in.

"You don't need to go with me," was his demand.

"Oh, yes I do!" I wasn't going to let him go anywhere without my being there to take control if he couldn't manage the car.

He drove around the block then back home. "That's all I wanted to know. I can still drive if I need to," he said after parking.

That was the last time he drove anywhere. He was satisfied with my providing the transportation that he previously felt gave him independence. I was very relieved.

Facing the question of whether your loved one should stop driving is very difficult. You know they will feel like they are losing their independence, and you feel that way also. There will be more pressure on you to get them to and from the doctor's office and other places they want to go. How should you handle talking to them about this volatile subject? Let's not go off on a tangent without looking at a few things. This can be manageable.

Before you talk to them, examine your reasons for believing they should not drive any longer. Is it because of their age? Is it because you see signs that their vision, hearing, physical fitness, attention and/or reaction time are not what they should be? Have they changed their driving habits to compensate for any decline in ability? Do they now have a disability or disease that makes driving dangerous - to them or others?

If you think they are simply too old to drive but they don't have any physical or mental problems, it probably it is not time for them to stop driving. Age alone is not a reason to limit driving.

If it is because of their physical or mental health, ask yourself whether they have changed their driving habits to compensate for those limitations? When an older person realizes that their driving ability has declined they adjust their driving habits to be as safe as possible. They might drive just short distances, only drive to familiar places, avoid freeways and rush hour traffic, leave early enough to get to their destination, stop driving at night or never drive anywhere alone. The fact that they are making changes in their driving habits indicates they are aware of their situation and making the necessary adjustments to remain a safe driver. You can help by enrolling them in a refresher course in driving.

When you determine they need to make some changes in their driving habits or stop driving completely, involve them in this important decision process that affects their life and future. Sit them down and talk with them. Tell them that you love them and want them to continue living an independent life as long as possible. Explain the problems you see and why you are concerned. At the very least, insist that they have a complete physical examination to determine whether there might be a physical problem that can be improved or corrected. At the end of the physical exam, ask the doctor about driving. Let your loved one know that you understand that they don't want to put themselves or other people in danger by their unsafe driving.

Driving means independence -- and no one wants to surrender their independence. Discuss options available for them to remain independent after they stop driving. You might be available to drive them. There are also public transportation and other organizations that provide transportation for the elderly and have special services and fares for the elderly. Check what's available in your community. Stress to your parent that they will still be able to do what they want to do. Quite often they will find that they still have control of their lives and keep their independence when they use other means of transportation. Explain that there is less stress all around if they are driven.

If you are sure they should give up driving immediately, insist that they quit immediately. No discussion of maybe. It is as simple as that - take the keys away. If your loved one refuses to stop, there are other approaches you may need to use. Disable the car so it won't run (leave the headlights on all night or disconnect the battery) or take the keys away and don't find the "lost" keys. If your loved one calls a mechanic for repairs after you have disabled the car, you have no choice but to move the car from their reach or sell it.

I wish you luck, and remember: you are not alone and this situation is manageable.