The Caregiver's Handbook

Caring for a loved one—and yourself

Taking the Car Keys Away—Forever

What to do when your loved one shouldn't drive.

It’s inevitable. At some point, it’s no longer safe for us to drive. Usually a function of age, illness often spins the clock hands much faster. As drivers, we know what an enormous change this will make in our lives. It’s important for us to remember this when we force our spouse or parent to look at the time on their clock. 

The issues are huge—protecting our loved one, protecting ourselves, and protecting the general public. Our fantasy is that one day our loved one will awaken, hand us their keys and say, “It’s time for me to stop driving.” Since that rarely happens, that leaves us with one helluva problem.

Here’s what one wife faced.

Cathy and Craig are approaching 75. He is terminally ill with colorectal cancer, complicated by diabetes and a stroke. Even though Craig isn’t supposed to drive, he insists on doing it. Cathy is the breadwinner and caregiver, but has no power in their home. She is petrified of Craig’s driving and is compelled to point out that he’s about to back into another car, or that he’ll be turning into the wrong lane of traffic, or that he has just run a stop sign or red light. He yells at her to stop criticizing his driving and to “Shut up!” Arguments ensue, the danger continues, and Cathy has more stress added to her already-overburdened caregiver role. But what is she to do?

For Craig, the loss of his ability or privilege to drive pokes at a hornet’s nest of emotions signaling a loss of freedom, diminished manhood, and declining health—literally, the end of his life. Whether a husband, wife or parent; it’s a watershed moment. Yet the risks of medically- or age-impaired driving are great. Beyond medical, emotional, or personality issues; moral and legal ones arise.

What are the options for your loved one? Below are choices and options you and Cathy could consider. In my book, you can learn how to collaborate to accomplish these.

  •  Suggest other transportation possibilities.

It’s possible that if your loved one had reasonable options, they’d be willing to give up driving. Do some research on car services, special taxicab rates, hospital and community transport services, and even college kid chauffeurs in your area. Of course, if healthy enough, there’s public transportation.

  •  Suggest a safe driver assessment.

The National DriveABLE program offers driver assessments for medically at-risk drivers. The test results are reported to the motor vehicle department and could result in immediate termination of a license. If your loved one agrees to take this assessment, be prepared to adjust accordingly—particularly if they pass!

  •   Suggest safe-driver training.

There are special safe driving programs for seniors and the medically impaired. Some are done on the computer like “DriveSharp”, while some are in-person retraining like “Keeping us Safe”. Your auto insurance carrier likely can provide information on reputable programs.

What are the options for you?

1. Consult an attorney.

Due to the serious nature of this matter, one wife called the couple’s attorney regarding her liability if her husband had an accident. During the call, her attorney offered to speak with her husband about his driving. While this may be a necessary step, be sensitive to the fact that it may be embarrassing or even humiliating for your loved one. It needs to be handled respectfully.

Ask your attorney whether you have the legal power to take the keys away from your loved one, and how your attorney would suggest doing it. In extreme cases, you may have to enlist the help of others; sometimes even the police.

2.  Agree to disagree.

If you’ve tried the ideas above, and discussed, argued, reasoned, disagreed, and circled around the topic of driving many times, it’s now such a hot issue that the anger about it spills into every part of your relationship. Since talking about it doesn’t work, it’s time to stop. Finding no common ground, one couple agreed to disagree. The wife stated her concerns about his safety and the safety of pedestrians and other drivers, protected herself legally, and said no more.

 3. Protect your car.

If your loved one’s driving is dangerous make your car off limits; particularly if an attorney advises that. The idea isn’t to make your loved one’s life harder. It’s to show them the level of your concern, and to make you less legally vulnerable or inconvenienced if they have an accident with your car.

 4. Protect yourself.

Too often I hear friends complain about riding with terrible drivers. But they continue because they’d rather risk their own safety than face the possibility of offending that driver. You can skirt the awkward explanation and simply offer to do the driving. If that’s declined, it’s perfectly appropriate to respectfully tell them you don’t feel safe as their passenger—then drive yourself. For some couples, this may present a devastating turn in their relationship—the end of Sunday drives with the husband at the helm, and driving for social reasons and routine errands. You can’t, however, risk safety just to spare someone’s feelings. Instead, collaborate and adjust.

Since the clock is relentless in its movement, removing the stress of this driving issue will allow your home to become more peaceful. Rather than battling your loved one, you may reclaim the loving feelings you once had. Stay tuned for future blogs to help couples, and children caring for parents, navigate through a long-term serious illness—including tips and tools for the caregiver and the patient. 

Diana B. Denholm, Ph.D., L.M.H.C., is a medical psychotherapist and the author of The Caregiving Wife's Handbook.

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