Taking the Car Keys from Aging Parents: Starting the Conversation


The following article by Lisa Bixler originally appeared in Prime Women magazine.

Recently I planned a trip to visit some out of state family members. “I’ll see you at the airport!” one of them told me on the phone. That had always been our routine, and I didn’t think anything of it, even though a few other relatives had mentioned that lately they’d noticed changes in this person’s driving.

One of them, slightly less tactfully, even commented that he wasn’t prepared for a thrill-seeking adventure ride the day that he got in the car. I listened, but decided to take a chance anyway. It was only a 20 minute ride from the airport, and it was all local roads.

Big mistake.

I found myself silently reciting every prayer I’d ever learned, in addition to making up some new ones, as we repeatedly drifted into the next lane, narrowly missing the other cars. The worst moment came when we sailed through the red light at a four way intersection during rush hour traffic.

The driver was oblivious to all of it, making small talk and filling me in on the local happenings. Later, still shaken and grateful to be alive, I sat down with the others to try and figure out what to do about the situation. How do you tell someone you love that it’s time to turn over their car keys?

There are various reasons why our driving abilities change as we age – including vision and hearing loss, arthritis, neuropathy, side effects of medication, dementia and other cognitive issues. It can be especially difficult to witness this change in our aging parents – the people who typically taught us to drive.

For those who are unsure how to address this topic with mom or dad, a conversation with their doctor is a good place to start. Doctors deal with this issue often and are used to “playing the bad guy,” referring the patient for a comprehensive driving assessment.

These assessments are performed by occupational therapists or rehabilitation specialists. Costs can run into hundreds of dollars but are often covered by insurance. The results are sent to the doctor and patient and will help in planning the next steps. A few good resources to learn more about clinical driving assessments are:

The Hartford Driving Evaluation

AAA Senior Driving Assessment

Develop solutions based on the condition and cause for the impairment

Depending on recommendations from the professional, sometimes the patient can learn new movements and behavioral strategies to compensate for the problem. On the other hand, if processing and reaction time is still intact but the person occasionally forgets where to turn, having a passenger in the car to help with directions could allow them to drive a little longer.

When the only safe solution seems to be for the person to completely stop driving, discuss alternatives and figure out which ones they’d be most comfortable trying.

Examine the root of the resistance

Choosing to stop driving once a person reaches a certain age or condition is definitely the exception and not the norm. For many of our aging parents, driving is a strong part of their identity. Learning to drive was a major rite of passage in their lives. They can still remember in detail the day they got their license or bought their first car. To them, giving up the keys means a loss of freedom and independence, so they will fight to hang on to them as long as possible. For others, relationship roles play a factor.

For instance, if one person in a couple typically drove whenever they went anywhere together, that person may resist giving up the role and letting the other person start taking the wheel. Some are also afraid that if they stop driving they will lose an important connection to their community, whether that’s family, friends, or a particular activity they enjoy. Understanding where the resistance is coming from helps create alternatives that work best for each situation.

Help them keep doing what brings them joy

Is it going to a longstanding weekly lunch with their friends? Is it a favorite swim class or church on Sundays? Pick a comfortable, relaxed setting and let them take their time telling you what that is; then continue to prioritize those things as you develop the new plan. Reassurance that the most important pieces of their lifestyle and routine will remain intact can go a long way to make older seniors feel less fearful and more receptive in the face of a big change.  Another useful resource is the free online seminar by AARP. It offers good information for dealing with various aspects of this challenging issue with your aging parents.

Driverless cars, new apps, robots and drones… Who knows how those technological advancements we keep hearing about will change the conversation over the next generation? In the meantime, adding compassion and support to professional medical advice when dealing with your aging parents can be an effective way to get the conversation started.

Author: Lisa Bixler

Lisa Bixler of Houston based LKB Architecture, provides sustainable architectural and planning services. She has a passion for creating solutions in accessibility, senior living, and universal design/aging-in-place.