Time to Take Their Keys?

How to talk to your parents about driving


giving up the car keysFor the third time in less than a year, you’ve noticed a new dent on your mother’s car. She says it’s no big deal, there was a short pole at the gas station that she didn’t see. No harm done. You know it is a big deal. Her eyesight and vision are both in decline, and you worry. Not only for your mother, but others on the road. You wonder if it’s time to take the keys.

According to iihs.org, the number of licensed drivers over the age of 70 is growing. Not only is the US population aging, but people are keeping their licenses longer than they used to. The question is – how long is too long? And the answer is not easy to know.

Older people vary greatly in their physical and cognitive abilities. Being over a certain age isn’t, in itself, reason to stop driving. Many people are competent drivers well into their 80s and beyond. But at any age, certain health conditions can greatly impair reaction skills and the ability to make quick judgement calls that safe driving requires.

Here are a few things that contribute to impaired driving ability:

  • Vision and auditory problems. Glasses and hearing aids don’t completely compensate for eyesight and hearing loss. As we age, our depth perception declines and it becomes harder to see in low-light. And hearing aids can amplify some frequencies, causing potential distractions while driving.
  • Dementia or other memory issues. Safe driving requires a person’s full attention, every moment they are behind the wheel. While some level of forgetfulness is natural with age, if a senior is frequently distracted, has severe memory loss or another mental issue, it’s not safe for him to drive.
  • Physical conditions. The aches and pains that come with advanced age can also hinder your ability to drive. If your parents can’t comfortably turn their heads to look behind them, they could inadvertently back into something or someone (and backup cameras, though helpful, can not see everything.) Of course, if your parents have a medical condition that causes them to experience black-outs or seizures, they should definitely not be driving.
  • Medications. Do your parents’ cabinets resemble a pharmacy? They aren’t alone. Many prescriptions can cause drowsiness, slowed reaction time, or impaired judgement–not unlike being drunk. And the combined effect of multiple medications can be unpredictable.
  • Slow reaction times. Another natural part of aging is the slowing down of both physical and cognitive abilities. Even if your parents are mentally sharp, they may not be capable of thinking and acting quickly enough to avoid an accident.


What drives the decision?

In most cases, there isn’t one definitive moment that marks the time for someone to give up their car keys. Conditions that impair driving come on slowly and unevenly, making it hard to know when to have the conversation. Expert suggest making a plan and being prepared for some push-back from your parents.

Here are some things you can say and do:

  • Begin the conversation early. As with any life change, taking it one step at a time is often best. Even if you’re just beginning to suspect your parents’ driving is impaired, you can start a hypothetical conversation. If your parents are open to the idea, consider having a written agreement that you can refer to down the road, if needed.
  • Encourage self-imposed limits. Most people naturally drive less as they grow older and have fewer places they need to go. In addition, you might suggest to your parents that they limit night driving and avoid taking high-speed roads.
  • Arrange for rides or drive them yourself. A car is not just transportation, it represents freedom. It’s important to make sure parents are able get where they need to go and still have a social life, too. Public transportation or ride-share apps can help, but if you or another loved one lives nearby, plan on driving them yourself when possible. Arranging for delivery of groceries and other necessities can also help, and is easier than ever these days.
  • Avoid accusations. Be empathetic, and avoid statements that make your parents feel incompetent. It may help to frame it in the context of keeping them, and other people, safe.
  • Enlist others to help. After being the parent for so many years, it can be hard to see your kids taking charge. If your parents have younger friends or relatives they trust, consider asking them to broach the subject. You might also get their doctor or another trusted advisor involved.


The conversation about driving may be the hardest one you ever have with your parents, but if you feel they are a danger on the road, it’s one you must have. With a little patience and a lot of love, you can help your aging parents realize that giving up the keys does not mean giving up their dignity.


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