When to take the car keys from elderly parents

I need to write about this, if only to get it off my chest.  There was a piece on Nightly News recently – actually, it aired on February 16 and has haunted me ever since.  How do you know, Brian Williams asked, when the time comes to take the car keys away from elderly parents?  Dr. Nancy Snyderman was the medical expert here, and she sited statistics on the number of auto accidents among elderly drivers.  She also talked about why this happens – slow response, confusion, deteriorating spacial judgment, and so on.  The focus of her piece, though, was an interview with a 94-year-old man who had made the decision, with his family’s approval, to limit his driving to daylight and his own neighborhood.

I was fine with all this.  Then, however, the talk turned to the steps individual states are taking to test the elderly before renewing their licenses.  In this gentleman’s state, for instance, he was asked to submit his medical records.  Dr. Snyderman asked if this bothered him.  Not at all, he said.  He had nothing to hide.  He was in great health.

This is what haunts me.

What about seniors who aren’t in great health?  Do we assume that their driving suffers because of an illness that may have nothing to do with eyesight or attention or response time?  Or a senior with a long history of illness, who may be healthy right now and an excellent driver – will that senior lose his or her license?  Who is looking at these medical records and making the decision – an employee of the Registry of Motor Vehicles?  A doctor?

Do you find this as troublesome as I do? Okay, maybe I’m overly sensitive after my run-in with the one-and-only airport scanner to pick up my 16-year-old breast cancer implant (which, BTW, they picked up on only one side, though I have them on two).  But, really.  Where’s the common sense here?  To give or withhold a drivers licensed based on a paper trail rather than a person’s current ability to drive seems wrong.  Wouldn’t a Registry road test every few years after a certain age be a better judge?

A disclaimer here.  I never had elderly parents.  They died too young.  So I can’t speak from personal experience.

But I keep thinking how awful it would be if my husband or I were to reach the stage where we couldn’t drive and were dependent on others.  No jaunts to the supermarket.  No drives to the mall to walk inside for two miles.  No impulse trips to the McDonalds drive-thru for a medium diet coke, no ice, please.  No freedom?  No independence?  No hope?

I’m all for taking dangerous drivers off the road.  But there has to be a way to do it that makes sense.  Your thoughts here?

By the way, here’s the NBC piece.  www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3032619/  If the link doesn’t take you there, click on Health, then Too Old to Drive.

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  1. Kathleen on February 27, 2012 at 8:24 am

    Great question. To be honest, I think EVERYONE would benefit from having to retake their road test every 10 years or so. Turning medical records over to non-medical professionals for a non-medical evaluation is an invasion of privacy. By making it mandatory to retake your road test every fixed number of years we might be motivated to keep our driving skills honed. Maybe after 50 we should have to take the test every 5 years, then every 3 years after 60, then every year after 70 (or something like that). Driving is a privilege not a right, but it’s a privilege that should be based on the actual performance of the driver.

  2. janet on February 27, 2012 at 8:35 am

    I have elderly parents and the time is coming soon when neither will be able to drive. My dad suffers from maculalr degeneration and so far is not in the danger zone just yet. He gets his eyes checked every 3 months so if there is a dramatic change he will have to relinquish his liscence on the spot, no ands if or buts. He has already been told that. My mom doesn’t drive much and never at night. Just around her neighborhood. But I know the time is coming when neithr will be able to drive and I hope they do it without a fight. I think everyone after 60 should be tested every 2 years. .

  3. Kim Das on February 27, 2012 at 8:46 am

    I had two elderly parents. My dad suffered from pneumonia and then pulmonary edema a couple of times that changed a robust man to a man who had to use a walker and was weak. My mother was letting him drive and I feared for his life and the ones on the road as well. For everyone’s sake I contacted the DMV and downloaded a form that I had to fill in my dad’s information and explain my conern for his driving. The DMV sent it to his doctor who was fully aware of his mental and physical condition and still would not take him off the road. Thankfully the DMV decided from my well written paragraph about my concerns that he needed to pass a driving test to keep his license. My dad got angry and said he would not take one. I had to take away his keys and bought his car off him to keep him from driving. Six months down the road he thanked me for caring as he could not see it at first. By the way a year later I had to have my mom’s license taken away too due to dementia.

    I see many elderly people that can barely walk get out of cars behind the wheel and know their reflexes cannot be sufficient to drive. I hear the problem many have is that there is not adequate public transportation especially in the rural area and family now is working and not there to support the elderly. I know the AARP is strong and are fighting mandatory testing but believe from 60 on it should be in place nationwide. I would love to join a crusade to get this in place as it is a big concern of mine.

    • Cindy Brown on February 29, 2012 at 2:55 am

      While I agree that at a certain point it is best to curtail driving privileges for the elderly, I keep seeing references to the age of 60. Many of us at 60 (myself included) are still competent to drive, and I have heard it said that 60 is the new 40 or something like that. But more importantly, there are many people out there much younger than 60 who shouldn’t be driving. I think that setting an arbitrary age, even for testing, is wrong. I also disagree with using medical records as a criteria would be wrong, as well as an invasion of privacy. Road test everybody at maybe 2 or 3 year intervals! I think that would be more to the point. Or at least require eye tests and some remedial or defensive driving courses. But please, don’t start with age 60 as a point to start requiring things.

      • Kim Das on February 29, 2012 at 8:38 am

        I agree with tests every 2 or 3 years for everyone as we all forget many rules of the road and it would keep us in check with the law. With my dad the state needed to see his medical records for an assessment of his ability as he had lost the strength in his legs. To the ones out there battling this with their parents it is not an easy decision. I argued with myself for a month over whether to report my dad and finally came to the decision after I heard a 30-year-old police officer with a wife and 2 young children was directing traffic and an elderly woman did not see him, hit him and he died. She was very confused when talked to after and could not remember much. I know that is shock after an accident but later it was revealed that she had dementia and her family could not take her keys away. Do it for the one you love and the others on the road as well. Support your parent in any way you can after and be prepared for the anger as my dad was pretty angry at me for six months and then the realization came to him that I was right. I don’t relish the idea of the government controlling things so if we as adults take the situation into our own hands, take their keys and car away then we can avoid government control.

        Barbara, do you know of anyone I can get in contact with to further pursue this issue? I love your books so please keep writing.

  4. Pat Puckett on February 27, 2012 at 9:05 am

    DMV has no right to see a person’s medical records. That WOULD be an invasion of privacy. Frequent driving tests after a certain age should suffice….also a person’s family should have a pretty good feel as to whether it’s time to relinquish their driving privileges. In many cases, being able to still drive is their last little bit of independence, and to take that away too soon, if they are still capable, would be a shame. How about looking at their driving record? That should be a pretty good indication of what kind of driver they are.

  5. Esther Nefesh on February 27, 2012 at 9:13 am

    Hi Barbara,

    I’m overly sensitive in this subject as well, but for the contrary. We recently had a fatal accident resulted in 2 elementary childrens’ death in our school community. The reason was an elderly. 100% at fault. She also died, but causing the deaths of 2 kids at the same time. What a way to go… I have 2 children at the same school and this could have easily happened to my kids, God forbid as I was there at the pick up time… I live in Westchester, NY where there are many elderly. The problem is, you can never know when that 1st day will arrive that your brain will completely go blank for a second and you won’t know what to do. Unfortunately we can’t say “this is my life so, if I’ll die in an accident so what? At least I died free and not depending on others”. We can’t say that because most accidents involve others. And if I were to put one person in danger for my selfishness, I’d rather not exist in this world. Just the other day, I was driving behind a very elderly lady, we were driving 15mph (speed limit 30mph), she stopped in the middle of the road for no reason and started watching the kids play at the park . No signal, no pulling to the side. Nothing. Just like that, in the middle of the road. I was a millimeter close to hitting her from behind and would’ve been my fault too! I don’t think any medical record (except may be Alzheimer report) can really be accurate. Road test every 6 months after age 75, is at the very least, essential. I think it is a very serious issue and the authorities should definitely do whatever they can to prevent these accidents. It is as dangerous and serious as driving under the influence, or texting or speeding, etc..
    Respectfully, I usually agree with you, but not on this subject Barbara. May be if I hadn’t witnessed a recent TERRIBLE tragedy, I would. I pray that when I come to the age, I will not turn out to be one of them but will have the sensitivity to take a taxi to the grocery store once a week, (which I see many other elderly do in my community), plan my life better, and stop driving before that 1st day arrives that I don’t know where I am or what I’m doing. That’s what I pray for…

  6. Anne on February 27, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    I never had to take away my mother’s keys — something that would not have gone over well. My mother died 2 years ago as a result of a car accident. She was at fault and thank goodness no one else was injured. She was 88. She thought stop signs were “suggestions” as were speed limits within town. The thing is, she was NOT senile in the least. She simply did not see that she wasn’t being careful any longer. I vote whole-heartedly with having to take a driving test every couple years at least once we hit, say, 60. That way, bad habits can be corrected at a “young” age and the elderly won’t feel so targeted. By the way, I’m 55, and I know my ability to see what’s going on around me is not what it used to be. I’ve compensated by looking twice at all intersections, etc., just in case I’m wrong the first time.

  7. Pauline Mooney on February 27, 2012 at 10:41 pm

    Wow, this is amazing. I have just finished writing a letter to an elderly Aunt regarding my concern for my Mum (87) driving. I know she herself has had a few scares with forgetting how to get home and has cried to me on the phone (she lives in England by the way). I have been arguing with myself about how I don’t want to make the wrong decision. I don’t want to bully her into stopping. But at the same time I know she would be mortified if she hurt anyone, or for that matter even just had a fender bender. In England it’s so much easier to get around, taxi’s are plentiful, buses are on every street corner, trains are accessible, so why am I feeling guilty for trying to get her to give up??? Am I wrong? Am I right? I love my Mum, I just don’t want to say or do the wrong thing???

    • Barbara Delinsky on February 28, 2012 at 6:23 am

      I don’t know the answers, either, Pauline. But the one thing I do see in your post is how much you love your mother, which means that whatever you decide to do will be done from the heart. Still, it’s a tough, tough decision.

      • Pauline Mooney on February 28, 2012 at 1:16 pm

        Hi Barbara, you know after reading everyone’s emails I think I’m just going to bring her over here for a couple of months and just observe and talk to her. Make her feel part of the decision. Knowing my Mum, although it will be hard to let go of such a huge thing in her life I know whe’ll want to do the right thing.
        If all else fails,then Miss Bossy Boots will rear her ugly head!

        • Barbara Delinsky on February 28, 2012 at 1:31 pm

          Sounds like a plan …

  8. mary on February 29, 2012 at 1:56 am

    I am concerned whenever a governmental agency decides it knows what is best for you. How do you know any driver is safe? Plenty of young people have accidents due to inattention and guess what, that condition is not restricted to youth. Statistics will probably show young people/early inexperienced drivers are the most likely to have accidents.
    I am not elderly, but I see and have seen a lot of interventions in our lives for our “own good”. The trouble is, who is deciding? This is not something to tread lightly on. After all years ago we used to institutionalize people for their own good. Perfectly healthy people who were slow or not the norm. We should not erode rights of people.
    Just be aware that once tests begin on one “set” of people, then it opens the door to many. I am adamantly opposed to tests of the elderly.

    • DaveM on April 16, 2012 at 8:54 pm

      A government agency decided when you could get your license, why should they not then retest you to decide whether you can keep it? I live in the county most densely populated with Seniors in the country (Ocean County, NJ), so I have a little experience sharing the road with them. I have nothing against Seniors driving as long as they are capable, but after my grandmother got into an accident at age 80 because she only had one functioning arm, I realized retesting was probably something that should be investigated. She said that the reason she didn’t stop driving was that nobody had ever questioned her. Needless to say, we did.

      I am 47 years old, and would readily submit to a cursory retest every 5 years or something (starting now), in order to keep the roads safe. If you lived where I live, and saw the number of wrong-way and brake-gas-confusion accidents we have here, you might agree that it’s not a bad idea.

      Inattention is not the problem the elderly have. If inattention is your problem, you can pay more attention. If you can’t remember which is gas and which is brake, or which side of the road to drive on, that is not fixable.

  9. cdw100 on June 23, 2014 at 12:10 am

    As a paramedic, I see elderly drivers monthly, who should be disqualified from driving. I work in Ontario Canada, with our public paid healthcare, we have a severe shortage of family doctors, so almost all emergently ill persons of any age, go to the ER for the most basic of medical complaints. This is where we find all of the elderly who should not be driving, and the ER doctors see it as their duty to send the paperwork to the MTO to disqualify these obtunded persons. The yelling and screaming in the ER just warms the soul knowing that one less driver is off the road. I have had some of these drivers tell me, they dont care, so what if they have one more accident, they will just stop after that, and then save money from not paying the insurance. Well good news here in Ontario, the geezers are now getting whacked for insurance as bad as teenage males. So if you add mis-medicated or over-medicated oldsters to the congestive heart failure types or stroke seizure patients, it is a dangerous place out there on the roads. A suggestion, if you live in a neighbourhood with an older dangerous driver, when he/she goes out on the road, place a call to the police about a weaving car and almost hitting a dog or a small child and give the licence plate. Trust me, once the paperwork gets started and the police show up to talk to the driver, then the fun begins.

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