Knowing when it’s no longer safe for an elderly parent to be driving

Elderly woman driving

© Sstevenson |

Imagine for a moment that a well-meaning family member decides it’s no longer safe for you to drive and takes away your keys. You have been driving all of your adult life with no major mishaps. The only issue, as far as you’re concerned, is that you’re not quite as young as you used to be.

Chances are you would be quite upset and perhaps a little panic-stricken at the thought of losing your independence. That’s what happened when Becky told her 86-year-old mother she was concerned about her driving.

Driving her car was Becky’s mother’s greatest pleasure. On weekends, she would have the newspaper spread out on the passenger seat, open to the page that listed all the local yard sales. Other days, she might grab her keys and go for a long ride in the country or pop in on a dear friend. Her car was her antidote for worry and stress. But it had become a major source of worry and stress for Becky and her siblings. The problem was that even though most of them would not ride in the car with her anymore, they hated to take away her freedom, and she was not about to give it up without a fight!

The turning point came when Becky’s mother’s doctor told her she shouldn’t drive anymore because her reaction time was slower than it should be and she was also showing signs of confusion due to early Alzheimer’s disease.

Warning signs that it’s no longer safe to drive

Here’s a list, courtesy of the Alzheimer’s Association, of common warning signs that might help you decide if it’s no longer safe for your elderly loved one to drive.

  • Forgetting how to locate familiar places
  • Failing to observe traffic signs
  • Making slow or poor decisions in traffic
  • Driving at an inappropriate speed
  • Becoming angry or confused while driving
  • Hitting curbs
  • Using poor lane control
  • Making errors at intersections
  • Confusing the brake and gas pedals
  • Returning from a routine drive later than usual
  • Forgetting the destination you are driving to during the trip

Any conversation with an elderly parent is bound to be difficult if it involves losing independence but, “A conversation about driving is the hardest conversation, bar none,” says Ellen Jackson, a geriatric social worker at Maine Medical Center’s Outpatient Geriatric Center. “I always say if you won’t let your child or grandchild ride in the car with the elderly person, that person probably shouldn’t be driving.”

While it didn’t make the conversation with her mother any easier, having the doctor’s support and learning more about the potential safety risks was very helpful to Becky. Safety was the most important issue, but she also realized that helping her mother maintain her independence was also important.

Have you been in Becky’s shoes? Or her mother’s? How did you handle the situation?

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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.