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When Is the Right Time to Take Older Drivers’ Keys Away?

A growing elderly population makes this a hot topic.

Taking the car keys away from an elderly relative is a heart-wrenching decision, but it's one that more families will face because of a growing elderly population. 

"As the baby boomers get older, you'll see a lot of people having to give up their driving privileges," Suzanne Levin, director of the Cockeysville Senior Center, said. "It's a tough topic to talk about."

Levin said families of older motorists should keep an eye out for memory issues, confusion and disorientation in their loved ones. She also warns that some physical ailments, such as heart attacks, can cause slower reflexes, which will also impede driving ability.

Dr. Janet Sunness, medical director of the Greater Baltimore Medical Center’s Hoover Rehabilitation Services for Low Vision and Blindness, cites macular degeneration, a leading cause of vision loss in the elderly, as a primary health concern for older drivers.

“About 10 percent of people over the age of 75 have the condition,” Sunness said. “It’s a significant issue.”

But Sunness, also a member of the Motor Vehicle Administration Medical Advisory Board, said her philosophy is to let people drive as long as they safely can.

“If you look at elderly people, their driving needs are pretty straightforward. They go to church, see the kids, go shopping,” she said. “It’s a tough call to take away the keys for good, but there are options in between.”

The Motor Vehicle Administration’s Modified Vision Driving Program enables older drivers to stay on the road, with restrictions.

“The training is geared toward [motorists] driving safely,” Sunness said. “Many elderly people can’t see as well at night, are sensitive to glare, have a slower reaction time. The program addresses that.”

The Modified Vision Driving Program tests driving ability, and grants limited licenses accordingly. For example, some licenses may permit drivers to only drive within certain geographical boundaries, or during certain hours. Motorists are re-evaluated on a yearly basis.

But this isn’t an option for everyone.

Dr. Judah Ronch, dean of the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Erickson School of Aging Studies, said talking to severely impaired elderly motorists about giving up their car keys is difficult but necessary.

“You can’t just have one conversation,” Ronch said. “You must have many. We shouldn’t expect them to say, ‘Sure, whatever you say.’”

Ronch urges families and friends to acknowledge that losing driving privileges is a threat to a person’s independence, but insists that the dangers of unsafe driving must be pointed out.

He also asks loved ones to step up and help elderly motorists get around.

“Because of the way we build communities, not being able to drive is a bad outcome,” Ronch said. “It takes a coordinated response.”

Ronch warns that as populations of elderly people increase, the issue will become even more prevalent.   

“It’s a big problem, and it’s only getting bigger.”

Janet June 05, 2011 at 01:33 PM
The same time you make dirt bikes and crotch rockets illegal and take away the license of anyone and everyone who is found guilty of driving while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs!
Tammy Zaluzney June 05, 2011 at 08:08 PM
Thank you for this thoughtful and thought provoking article. As someone with elderly parents, this is a topic we address regularly. I am grateful that my folks don't live in the Baltimore area frankly, as I find the aggressive driving very bad in this area. They are in a quiet suburb in Northern Va and are able to get around their area just fine. They can get to Drs. appoinments, stores and to social activities. They are not longer comfortable driving in unfamiliar areas or on interstates are large highways like 95 or the DC Beltway, but they have little need or desire to do so and I am fortunately close enough that I can take them if they need to go anywhere outside of their comfort zone. I also make a point of asking them to accompany me to various things I knwo they like. Not some much becasue I want to go, but becasue I know they would like to but will not drive. I think it helps them to admit their limitations and feel okay about it becasue they are not really missing out on anything. I know the day is coming when they will not be able to drive at all and it will be difficult for them and for me, but we'll cross that bridge when we have to.
Tammy June 05, 2011 at 09:08 PM
I appreciate this article. Sadly I recently observed a member of a family just decide to take away this decision from an elderly person. Not only did they not have a conversation with them first, but just turned in their license and neglect to bring food on a regular basis. People need to realize that although it may be necessary, that you also need to be responsible and aid them in errands and basic needs, and most importantly, be sensitive to the fact that this is a very difficult time, everyone deserves respect, so we all must be thoughtful and compassionate to one another.
Janet June 05, 2011 at 11:54 PM
Tammy, your comment is right on. We had to "disarm" our father's car due to his "memory problems". That was hard enough. What people do not realize is when you do something like this you have to be there to assist with transportation to stores, physicians, church, sr. centers, etc. People may think this is the best course of action (which it is depending on circumstances) but complain about the inconvenience to them. What about the inconvenience to the elderly who now find themselves without a mode of transportation after "how many years" of being self sufficient. With God's blessings we may all find ourselves wearing those very tight shoes. Be gentle!
Rocco Rotondo June 06, 2011 at 03:21 AM
I think you will find elderly people will know. They will stop driving on their own if they have problems.

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