How to Lessen the Stress of Taking Car Keys from an Elderly Parent


Convincing an aging parent that it is time for them to stop driving is never an easy thing for an adult child to do. Unfortunately, it’s a conversation that most people will have to have at one time or another.

So why is it so difficult? The truth is, giving up the keys to the car is less about transportation issues for an aging parent and more about coming to grips with the loss of independence. Trips to the doctor’s office, grocery store, church or a friend’s house will now require assistance. And even if you are more than willing to drive your parent everywhere they need to go, the realization that they are now dependent on someone else to get around can be devastating.

Of course, no one wants to take the car away from a parent if that parent is still capable of driving. After all, the more independent an elderly person is, the more likely they are to be happy and thrive.

Many people believe that once a person reaches a certain age, they need to stop driving. This is patently false. There are 60 year olds that have no business behind the wheel just as there are 80 year olds who are far better drivers than people half their age.

So how do you know when a parent should stop driving? The following risk factors indicate it’s probably time:

  1. Decreased range of motion. A full range of motion is essential when driving. If a person is particularly inflexible, this can decrease reaction times.
  2. Dementia or other types of brain impairment. These conditions can lead to slower reaction times and confusion behind the wheel.
  3. If a person is experiencing sleeping issues at night, this can lead to dangerous situations on the road because an individual is likely to doze off while driving. Further, certain medications can lead to drowsiness.
  4. Hearing loss. If hearing has deteriorated to the point where a loved one cannot hear things like emergency sirens, car horns or children playing, it is unsafe for that person to be behind the wheel.
  5. Vision issues. Vision declines with age. If a person is having problems with depth perception and judging the speed of oncoming traffic, these issues cannot be ignored.

There are other physical and mental issues that need to be taken into consideration when gaging a driver’s ability to navigate the road. While it can be difficult to know for sure that a person is having vision issues, for example, it is relatively easy to spot signs of unsafe driving. Look out for the following warning signs when making a decision whether or not it is time for an individual to forfeit the car keys:

  • Abrupt lane changes or drifting into other lanes or onto the shoulder of the road.
  • An increased number of near misses or close calls with other cars or things like mailboxes and curbs.
  • Becoming increasingly anxious while driving.
  • Getting irritated with other drivers.
  • Difficulty moving the foot between the brake and gas pedals.
  • Failure to adhere to road signs.
  • Failure to signal lane changes or driving with a blinker on when not signaling a turn.
  • Frequent and unwarranted braking or acceleration.
  • Missing exits or getting lost.

Once you have decided it is time to ask your loved one to forfeit the car keys, it is important to approach the subject respectfully. While you may have no intention of backing down, it is always best when you talk with your parent in a way that lets them know that you respect their opinion. You also should let your parent know that taking the car keys is not something you are doing to them but rather for them. In other words, always start the conversation from a place of love.

It is important to be firm with your parent, especially if they are resistant to the idea of no longer driving, but that doesn’t mean you have to be combative or argumentative. When possible, you should try to make your parent feel as if they have a real voice in the conversation. You can do this by asking questions such as “Do you find yourself a little more anxious when driving lately?” This will help them from becoming angry or defensive.

In light of the seriousness of this conversation, it is not something you want to rush. Make sure you have plenty of time to spend with your parent when you bring this issue up. Often a parent will want to talk about their first car or their first road trip. By listening to such stories you make it clear that you care about them and understand that this is a difficult time for them.

Even if you do everything right, the conversation will likely be difficult. If, no matter how hard you try to gently take the car keys from a parent, they refuse to stop driving, you may have to take more drastic measures such as asking their physician to submit a medical status report to the Department of Motor Vehicles to revoke your parent’s license. Thankfully, in most cases such extremes measures are not necessary.

Finally, once you get a parent to relinquish the car keys your job is not finished. Instead, you should work on making sure your parent realizes that the end of their driving career doesn’t mean a life of isolation. You can do this by visiting or calling them as often as possible; driving them to some of their favorite places on a regular basis; including them in family gatherings such as dance recitals and school plays; and encouraging them to develop new hobbies that they can do from home, such as gardening.