Should I Take Away My Older Parent’s Car Keys?

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It might start with a fender bender, or backing into a mailbox or garbage can: the kind of thing that could happen to anyone, and probably has. But then it happens again, and again shortly thereafter, and you begin to realize that these accidents are more than random chance; they’re happening much more often than they should. Your mom or dad is shaken by these events—and so are you. You’re afraid that the next time they have a problem with the car, somebody will get hurt.

If this scenario sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. There are a lot of aging parents in this country, and there will be more in the coming decades. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of people 65 and up in the United States is projected to rise from just over 43 million in 2012 to nearly 88 million in 2050.

That means there are a lot of elderly people out there on the roads. Not all of them have difficulty driving, but enough do that it’s a source of great concern to their loved ones and public safety organizations. When is an older person no longer safe to drive? Should you take away a parent’s car keys? If so, how?

Balancing Your Parent’s Safety Against Their Independence

Often, older adults who have difficulty driving have memory problems, including Alzheimer’s disease. This creates a multitude of problems in addition to the slower reflexes and poorer vision that tend to come with age. Someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia may also get lost easily, drive too slow, or forget to check mirrors before changing lanes.

Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s and dementia may also make a person more combative and agitated, particularly when their ability to take care of themselves is questioned or threatened. Even if a person does not have memory issues, the loss of the ability to drive, and the independence that goes with it, can lead to isolation, a loss of dignity, and depression. These in turn can lead to other health issues and a more rapid decline.

What’s more, many older people don’t have family members nearby to take them on errands, to church, to doctor appointments, or out to lunch, increasing their isolation. In Michigan, a state perhaps best known for building automobiles, the mass transit systems non-drivers may need are not always readily available. Even if there are bus routes nearby, frail or forgetful older people may struggle to use them. The Michigan Department of State offers a list of alternate transportation services for seniors, and the Michigan legislature also offers a publication detailing several services for Michigan seniors. These resources may make life easier for a senior who can no longer drive.

Enlisting Help to Take Away a Parent’s Driver License

In short, the decision that your parent shouldn’t be driving any more is probably going to be a difficult one, and even if it’s the right one, it will likely be difficult to get them on board. Know that you’re not the first one to have to broach this sensitive topic. The Alzheimer’s and Dementia Caregiver Center offers some helpful resources on dementia and driving.

Instead, express concern, and, if possible, make them a partner in problem-solving. “I know that fender bender must have shaken you up terribly, Dad. I’m so glad that you weren’t hurt. I have to say I’m kind of concerned because this is the second incident you’ve had with the car in three months. I know you’d feel horrible if it happened again and someone got hurt. Can we talk with your doctor and see if there’s anything we can do to make sure you’re as safe as possible when driving?”

If possible, make your parent a partner in problem-solving: “I know that fender bender must have shaken you up terribly, Dad. Can we talk with your doctor and see if there’s anything we can do to make sure you’re as safe as possible when driving?”

Your parent may resist even this, but it’s worth a try. A doctor’s suggestion to reduce or give up driving may be better received than the same suggestion coming from you, their child. The doctor cannot insist that your parent give up driving, but does have the authority to contact the Michigan Secretary of State to recommend that they be retested. Family members can also request reexamination, as can law enforcement.

The Michigan Secretary of State has a form, Request for Driver Evaluation (OC-88), that should be completed by the party requesting reexamination. The person making the referral must provide identifying information, but this information will be kept confidential to the extent the law allows. If, based on the information provided, the Secretary of State deems it necessary to reexamine the driver, he or she will be notified by mail with instructions. After reexamination, the Secretary of State may choose to restrict driving times, require special equipment to drive, or suspend or revoke driving privileges.

Even if a doctor or the Secretary of State does the “heavy lifting” of convincing or forcing your parent to give up driving, however, it’s likely that you will still have to deal with the practical and emotional fallout. You will probably need to arrange or provide transportation for them, and you should be alert to signs of isolation and depression. Contact an experienced Michigan elder law attorney for guidance as to how to protect your loved one.

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