Taking Away the Keys

Jacqueline Marcell Health Guide
  • A couple years ago in Santa Monica, California, an elderly man plowed through three blocks of people shopping at an open-air farmer’s market, killing 10 and injuring 50 (several children) before he could get his foot to the brake. I have been to that wonderful market many times and am still surprised none of my friends were there that day.

    I am sure that, at age 86, this poor man didn’t set out to commit vehicular manslaughter that day. Since one out of every two persons by the age of 85 gets some form of dementia, my guess is he suddenly couldn’t remember what the brake and gas were for, since “Difficulty Performing a Familiar Task” is a major warning sign of Alzheimer's Disease. If this were not the case, and he had only been distracted, he probably would have only killed a few people before being able to stop the car.
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    I am sure that if I'd been able to speak to his family before the accident, I would have heard what I hear all the time: "He’s still a pretty cautious driver and he only goes a few blocks to the stores. And I just can’t face him being furious with me if I don’t allow it. And anyway, he’s really not that bad yet."

    The tragedy magnifies the need for families to wake up and take responsibility for getting their elderly loved ones off the road when the time comes, even though it’s often a difficult hurdle to overcome. And since the loved one has likely been driving for more than a half a century (and perhaps he's never had an accident) and still has a valid license, the family doesn’t want to be burdened with chauffeur duties on a regular basis. No one wants to be the bad guy, taking away a loved one’s freedom and often one of their last independent pleasures in life.

    Stepping In and Saving Lives

    Unfortunately, an elderly person’s first accident may also be their last. The accident rate for senior citizens is four times higher than the national average and the fatality rate is nine times higher. If you’re noticing scratches or dents in the car, memory problems, eyesight, hearing and reflex problems, don’t wait for a horrible crisis and a lawsuit before you step in and do what you know if your heart needs to be done.

    Have the doctor thoroughly check your loved one’s ability to drive and then, if need be, let her be the bad guy, sternly advising that the time has come to stop driving. If that doesn’t work, ask the doctor to send a letter to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) saying that the license needs to be reevaluated.

    Unfortunately, if the situation is marginal, many doctors don’t want to be the bad guy either with their patients of many years. In that case, ask the doctor in confidence to give you a letter to take to the DMV, stating that the patient’s driving skills need to be reviewed immediately. This may require that you have Durable Power of Attorney.

    If that doesn’t work and the situation is critical (because you feel like you need a crash helmet every time you get in the car with your senior, while your constant pleas for them to stop driving are getting you nowhere), confidentially contact a supervisor at the DMV and explain the critical situation.

  • A Little Fibology
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    Now this next step requires a little white lie (which I prefer to call "fibology")--but remember lives are at stake and safety is your goal. Tell your senior that "someone" must have reported them driving erratically and that you have to take them over to the DMV for a routine check up right away. Have the appointment set up with the supervisor and after the tests, if the license ends up being revoked–be sympathetic, saying how sorry you are that this has happened. Give assurance that alternate transportation will be arranged for them right away, so your loved one doesn’t worry they’ll be trapped at home. This way, you’re not the horrible person who took away their freedom--you’re the good guy who helped solve the problem and kept them mobile.

    Next, call your county’s Area Agency on Aging (AKA: Department of Aging) and see what transportation programs are available. Many have free or low-cost services just for seniors. You can make it easier for your loved one to summon transportation by putting one-touch dialing on their phone for taxis, transportation services, friends and family.

    Last Resort

    If all else fails and you know an accident is eminent, there are still some simple but effective steps you can take. For example, you can put "The Club" anti-theft device on the steering wheel, remove the distributor cap, put an engine kill-switch in a locked glove box, put an extra notch in keys, or say the car is in the repair shop and they just can’t seem to get that part that’s needed. Sometimes when the car is "out of sight" it can help get it "out of mind."

    Then suggest that by selling the car, the money saved on gas, insurance and all this maintenance could be used for alternate transportation or even a special treat. But, if you have an obstinate elder like my father, after he finally accepted that he couldn’t drive--he still wanted to see his beloved car in the driveway and got great satisfaction from looking at it everyday. Yes, I still had "The Club" on the steering wheel, because he’d have periods of believing he was still perfectly fine to drive and even stole the keys out of the caregiver’s purse and we couldn’t find them for four days!

    Bottom line: Keep safety as your goal and do whatever you must to prevent your loved one and others from being hurt, becoming a statistic, and your family from being involved in another heartbreaking tragedy.

    How did you deal with taking the keys from your loved one? Tell us in the message boards.

    You can learn more about Jacqueline and find information about her book at ElderRage.com.

Published On: May 15, 2006