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Time to Hang Up the Keys?

Written by Barbara Harriott, former Counselor at LIFE (Lincoln Information for the Elderly)
Our society places a high premium on independence. One of the rites of passage to personal independence is learning to drive, getting a driver's license and having a car to drive. Most of us drive our car daily and feel totally inconvenienced (even for short periods of time) if the car is not available to us. Throughout our lives, driving continues to be recognized as a symbol of independence.

As we age chronologically, our body shows some physical change. Thus, the normal aging process may affect how we drive. Driving challenges us to quickly respond to what our senses see, hear and feel. We may not be able to respond as quickly to that small patch of ice, the other driver's erratic driving, or the little child who suddenly darts into the street. This slower response time, changes in hearing and eyesight and memory loss may be responsible for minor "fender-benders" or major accidents resulting in traffic violations, loss of driving points and eventually, the prospect of not being able to renew a driver's license.

Family members may notice the older person driving slower, acting less confident behind the wheel of the car, or getting lost trying to go to or return from a once familiar location. When some of these changes are recognized, it is time to sit down and in a non-threatening, but matter of fact manner, tell the older person what you have observed.

Be prepared to listen to and understand the emotional issues brought out by revealing the concern you have for the older person's safety and the safety of others. Your loved one may be defensive and make excuses for having accidents or for not being able to see well. He or she may say it was the other driver's fault; they just need to get their hearing checked or get new glasses and everything will be okay. Keep in mind you may also be verifying their own uncertainty about continuing to drive.

There is help for older persons who want to improve their driving skills. Most states have defensive driving classes offered through local safety councils. AARP (formerly American Association of Retired Persons) has developed a training packet called "55 Alive/Mature Driver," which takes into consideration the physical changes that occur during the normal aging process and gives specific suggestions to help the older person adjust their driving to accommodate these changes.

If your observations and the facts you've gathered point toward asking your loved one to "hang up the keys," realize you must take the time to work through the issues surrounding this major lifestyle change.

In our next issue of Family Ties, "Time to Hang up the Keys?" part 2, we'll continue to talk about ways to deal with the difficult issues of confronting a loved one about their driving skills. Until then, here are some resources you may find useful.

The AAA (Triple A) Foundation for Traffic Safety has resources may be helpful to older persons and their families. Please note, there may be a charge for some of the materials.

Some of these include:

  • Concerned about an Older Driver? A Guide for Families and Friends, $4
  • The Older And Wiser Driver 
    A brochure full of information for senior drivers. Use the "back" button on your browser to return to this page.
  • A Flexibility Fitness Training Package for Improving Older Driver Performance
    No Charge.
  • The Older Person's Guide to Safe Driving 50 cents.
  • Straight Talk for Older Drivers No Charge.

Contact: Triple A (AAA) Nebraska, Post Office Box 3985, Omaha, Nebraska, 68103, Attention Traffic Safety Division.


If your observations and the facts you've gathered point toward asking your loved one to "hang up the keys," realize you must take the time to work through the issues surrounding this major lifestyle change.

Consult the older person's physician or eye specialist. Receiving the medical facts from a physician may help the older person accept the reality of physical changes that make it unsafe for them to drive.

There are two Driver Rehabilitation Programs in Nebraska. These programs can assess the person's physical ability to drive, as well as their ability to make appropriate decisions while driving. Both programs request a referral from the participant's physician. The assessment is done by an occupational therapist who makes recommendations to the physician and/or to the Department of Motor Vehicles about whether or not the individual should continue to drive. (The name of the programs and contact persons for each have been included at the end of this article so you can contact them for specific details about how to access their program).

Your loved one may refuse to stop driving. Permitting the older person to continue to drive when no longer capable may endanger their life and the lives of others. If you see this happening, you can make the decision to write to the Nebraska Motor Vehicle Department and state why you feel the individual should not continue to drive. Be factual. You must sign your name. The information you provide is used by the Department to decide whether or not to ask your loved one to report to a designated Driver's License Testing Site to be re-tested. Your name cannot be released unless you give the Motor Vehicle Department written permission to use it.

The older person will also probably be asked to get a medical and/or vision statement from their physician to be submitted at the time they report for re-testing. The Department of Motor Vehicles reserves the right to determine the type of retesting to be done by the older person. They may request written, driving and vision tests.

When the older person can no longer drive, the caregiver should formulate, with their participation, a practical plan to provide alternative transportation. Talk to other family members and/or friends and ask them to help provide transportation to medical appointments, banking transactions and grocery shopping. Don't forget about other activities that are important to your loved one such as, card parties with long-standing friends, church activities, barber shop/beauty shop appointments, and general shopping.

Consider talking to community agencies about transportation options. Perhaps there is a Handivan, taxi service or volunteer program that provides transportation for medical and/or other needs. It is important to listen to the older person. Let them express to you how this loss really affects them. If you think the older person could benefit from talking about their feelings with a caring professional, call your local Area Agency on Aging office for assistance.

Driver Rehabilitation Programs

Alegent Health Immanuel Rehabilitation Center, Omaha, Nebraska
Driver Rehabilitation Program
(402) 572-2275

Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, Lincoln, Nebraska
Driver Retraining Program
(402) 483-9497

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