Giving Up the Car Keys

Our dad has always loved cars.

He was a successful businessman who had a lot of hobbies and interests, but cars were his number one. As far back as I can remember, he would pull them into the driveway on the weekend to wash and polish them, inside and out. For him, they were a particular source of pride.

But, as I have written about before, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 14 years ago and has slowly lost his ability to do many things. We had hoped that the time would come when he would acknowledge that he was no longer capable of safely driving a car due to the disease and voluntarily offer to stop. But we are not there yet.

It’s understandable, of course.

Nothing provides as much autonomy as being able to get into your car and go wherever and whenever you want. Our dad actually purchased a new car the day before moving into the assisted living, to make sure he would retain his freedom to come and go as he pleased!

But, it’s important to recognize that driving is about more than just convenience. For my dad and many others like him, owning and driving a car represents independence.

Just as learning to drive was a rite of passage, giving it up is too — but in the opposite direction.

Impaired Judgement

Part of what’s going on with my dad is that while his physical capabilities are worsening due to Parkinson’s, so is his judgement. This impacts both his ability to drive safely and his awareness of his own capabilities.

These lapses in judgement first became apparent to us when he shattered his ankle after a fall from a ladder (he was trying to hang a picture). To us, of course, he never should have been standing on that ladder in the first place! To him, it seemed like a reasonable thing to do.

And so, as the situation continues to develop, we now find ourselves trying to convince my dad to give up his keys.

Trust is Important

Notice that I wrote, “convince,” not “force.” This is a difficult transition and we have seen families do irreparable harm by forcibly taking the car keys away (we even heard of one person who sold his mother’s car without telling her).

A better approach is to help the older adult see for themselves that the time has come. Some suggestions…

1. Involve a Professional

Your loved one’s physician or neurologist can play the role of “bad guy,” suggesting that it’s time to stop driving based on a professional assessment.

This won’t always work (it didn’t with our father!), but the involvement of a qualified, impartial, third party is often enough to make the difference. Plus, it allows you, as the adult child, to step back from much of the conflict and keep the relationship intact.

2. Get Tested

Many older adults — especially those who have excellent driving records and who pride themselves on their skills — will argue that they still drive perfectly well. So, ask them to take a test, “just to be sure.”

Mass.gov, AARP, and many private organizations offer driver training and assessments that are specifically geared to older adults. If nothing else, these will help your older loved one drive more safely. It may also make it perfectly clear that driving should no longer be an option.

3. Take it Step By Step

Going from having complete driving autonomy to giving up the keys all at once is an abrupt change. So look for ways to do this in phases.

One of our clients, for example, frequently drives his mother in her own car. This allows her to still own a vehicle and continue to enjoy the experience of traveling in a car she loves — but with most of the danger removed.

Other people reach an agreement to restrict when, where, and under what circumstances they will no longer drive (e.g., at night, in bad weather, on the highway). None of these solutions are perfect, but they are a step in the right direction.

Denial is a Human Trait

There are many ways in which denial drives decisions in our lives, but perhaps no more so than when it comes to asking an older loved one to recognize that they should no longer be driving.

But as uncomfortable as this situation may be, it’s important to take practical and proactive steps to intervene. The safety and wellbeing of both the driver and those on the street around them has to remain a priority.

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