Senior Drivers – When to Give Up (or Take) the Keys

by Derrick on January 5, 2009

The topic of when someone is too old to drive is often a highly emotional discussion with profound implications for the elder in question. National statistics indicate that by 2030 one out of every four drivers in the United States will be 65 or older. The problems associated with aging, such as slower reaction times, impaired judgment, and physical limitations all play a role determining when to hang the keys up for good. The subject is usually first raised after an accident or a series of near-miss accidents. There are no clear answers and it’s entirely dependent on individual skills, abilities, and limitations.

older_driverEmotions run high, because the ability to drive often means the ability to maintain one’s independence, and for people living in rural areas, it can often mean the difference between living at home and the need to move. When one is unable to rely on public transportation, volunteer drivers, or family and friends to get food, visit the doctor, etc. losing the ability to drive is like losing everything, including one’s identity. Without the ability to come and go, many seniors feel isolated and become depressed. They have lost control of their lives, and it can signal the end of life as they know it. Caregivers, family, and friends should proceed with caution when addressing driving concerns with a senior.

There are three types of senior drivers:

  1. the older driver that is alert and safe
  2. the older driver that has impairments – and is aware of them
  3. the older driver that has impairments – and is either not aware of them or in denial

There is no issue for the first type of driver, but the second type of driver must take steps to ensure safe driving habits. This typically includes:

  1. restricting driving to daylight hours
  2. staying in familiar areas
  3. driving with friends or partners

The third type of driver, the driver that doesn’t recognize his/her impairments or refuses to admit them, presents the most difficult challenge. Some elders will fight tooth and nail before giving up their license and it often involves a doctor, police officer, or state office administering license renewals telling them to stop. Doctors often find themselves in a difficult situation as they listen to the spouse or adult child on one hand informing them of their concerns, and the elder on the other hand maintaining they have no such problems, or that the concerns are being blow out of proportion.

The first step is to begin talking with the person. The sooner the conversation takes place the better, because it forces the individual to consider his/her driving abilities. The conversation should focus on your concern for the individual’s safety, and for the safety of others. The process can be gradual, starting with offering rides, encouraging daylight driving only, etc. with additional measures when/if impairments increase.

Here are ten warning signs to determine if you or your loved one should consider driving changes:

  1. getting disoriented and lost
  2. bumping curbs, scraping the car against shopping carts, etc.
  3. wavering in one’s lane
  4. slowed response to sudden changes
  5. confusion at intersections and nervousness with left-hand turns
  6. frequent close calls
  7. inability to accurately judge distance and speed
  8. other drivers honking at you or your loved one
  9. difficulty looking over one’s shoulder to see obstacles and cars
  10. easily distracted in the car, leaving the radio off when you or your loved one always preferred having it on

Additional thoughts:

  • State offices responsible for issuing a driver’s license may retest a driver upon request. This could be an intermediate solution to resolve questions about the ability of the driver.
  • Deteriorating driving abilities could be a sign that other skills may be declining. Family and friends should watch for additional changes.
  • The person losing his/her license should be supported. Connections should be made with friends and resources to keep the person connected and to prevent them from feeling trapped in their home.
  • AARP offers a Driver Safety Program that may benefit you or your loved one. Find your local AARP office by visiting ElderGuru’s Resources by State page.

Have you had experience with this issue that would be of benefit to others? Do you have specific questions? Leave a comment below.

Paul January 4, 2010 at 10:46 am

The hardest part about giving up the keys is the realization that you are giving up a piece of your independence along with it. You can no longer hop in the car to go to the store, go out to lunch, visit a friend… A national non-profit organization called ITNAmerica is working towards giving seniors as much of that independence back as possible once they hand over the keys.

With 16 affiliate organizations across the country, ITNAmerica offers rides to seniors at any time of day or night, with no limitation on what the ride is for. At half the cost of a taxi service, the Independent Transportation Network (ITN) uses volunteers to offer door-to-door, arm-in-arm service in order for seniors to maintain their independence.

There is a solution to this complicated but inevitable issue. ITN is here to help you reach it. You can learn more about the organization and how to start an affiliate in your community at http://www.itnamerica.org or email info@itnamerica.org.

Priscilla Burton June 16, 2009 at 10:45 am

I am trying to find a solution for my dad, he is 80 years old and still drives very well, he only drives during daylight time, and in need to pick up prescriptions for him and my disabled mother, and does not drive far. He has taken the driving test three times , the first one he was very nervous, after years of not having to take a test, the second time, he missed by one point, the last time, he had to wait 3 hours at the DMV and was very frustated and failed his test.
There must be some solution to this.
Thank you, Priscilla Burton

purplesue March 18, 2009 at 12:27 pm

Why don’t they do the same as in England. When a driver reaches 70 years old,they are automatically retested every 3 years! If they don’t pass these,they don’t drive anymore.

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