When is it time to give up the keys?

It’s an age-old question for older adults — and one that’s filled with all sorts of emotions. How can you know when it’s time for your mom or dad (or yourself) to hand over the car keys for good?

Whether you’re the senior in question or your parents or loved ones are, this is a challenging issue. The ability to drive a car is often closely associated with independence, so turning over the keys may feel like surrendering independence.

So how can you know when the time is right — and how to do it? We offer some insight into the issue.

Determining when to give up the keys

This can be a hard step, so you’ll want to keep a careful eye on your loved one and his or her driving skills and overall health.

Ride along occasionally as your parent or loved one drives somewhere and watch for potential signs of unsafe driving, including:

  • Delayed reactions to situations on the road
  • Decreased confidence in decisions while driving
  • Frequent close calls, either coming close to another car or an object
  • Driving too fast or too slow for road conditions
  • Difficulty merging into another lane or staying in one lane
  • Becoming easily distracted while driving
  • Confusing the parts of the car, like the gas pedal and brake
  • Getting lost in familiar locations

Health factors that signal it’s time to give up the keys

Beyond these unsafe driving habits, certain age-related factors can diminish a person’s ability to drive, putting the person and others at risk. These factors include:

  • Issues with vision, including poor depth perception, problems with peripheral vision, poor night vision, sensitivity to bright sunlight or glare
  • Limited mobility or flexibility, which can increase response time
  • Chronic medical conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, heart disease and arthritis, which can all suddenly impair driving ability
  • Medications, some of which can cause drowsiness or dizziness, especially when taken with alcohol or other medications
  • Hearing loss, which limits the ability to hear important warning sounds, such as sirens or horns
  • Dementia or cognitive decline, which can cause delayed reactions and confusion

What to do when it’s time to give up the keys

If you spot any of the signs outlined above, either dangerous driving habits or diminished health, you’ll want to begin the process of helping your loved one step away from driving.

Before you broach the conversation with your parent or other loved one, you’ll want to prepare a bit. How will your loved one get around once he or she can no longer drive? You’ll need to figure out the logistical challenges, including tapping in to any community or senior-related services available, before taking the next steps.

You may also want to look into other helpful resources, such as delivery services for groceries or meals.

Once you’ve decided it’s time for your loved one to give up the keys, you’ll want to have a conversation with him or her about what’s happening. During this conversation, it’s very important to ensure your loved one feels valued and listened to — don’t talk to him or her like a child, for one. Ask for his or her thoughts, too.

It may be helpful to loop others into this conversation, your loved one’s pastor or his or her doctor, for example. A doctor can be particularly helpful, since he or she will be aware of your loved one’s health issues and concerns and able to provide expert guidance.

Talk through what will happen. It may be that you can gradually curtail your loved one’s driving, such as not driving with kids in the car anymore, then eventually moving to no driving as health diminishes further.

If you need more guidance about how to approach the subject of giving up the keys with your loved one, AARP offers a helpful resource. Need a doctor to help evaluate your loved one’s health and abilities? Find one here.