How To Tell Your Loved One That It’s Time to Hand Over the Keys
By TODD C. RATNER, Esq.
Do you remember the day when you received your driver’s license? Most people experienced a rush of excitement and a sense of freedom that they could clearly recall many years later. Now imagine losing this mobility and freedom . . . or, being the one who has to inform an elderly driver that their driver’s license should be limited or even taken away.
The thought of having this often-awkward and painful conversation tempts loved ones to procrastinate; however, adequately preparing for this conversation with an elderly driver who poses a danger to himself and others, and understanding the resources available to both you and your loved one, can facilitate what otherwise might be a traumatic experience.
First, it is important to recognize that everyone ages differently. As such, age alone should never be the sole factor in determining whether or not an elder has the ability to drive safely. However, there is no denying that a person’s physical and cognitive abilities often deteriorate with age. As we age, there is a greater likelihood of becoming inflicted with chronic diseases such as arthritis, dementia, and hearing impairment. In addition, safety of the elder is a concern, as elderly people are more likely to be injured than younger people in similar automobile accidents.
Because the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has no special licensing requirements for elderly drivers, family members should continually watch for signs of diminished capacity. Specifically, family members should ascertain whether or not the driver gets lost, has an increasing number of accidents, becomes forgetful, or has problems understanding simple instructions. Additionally, both Massachusetts and Connecticut require drivers to inform the Registry of Motor Vehicles and Department of Transportation if they have a medical condition that they believe may affect their ability to operate a motor vehicle.
In the event that you believe an elderly driver should reduce or stop driving, it is important to form a plan prior to commencing a dialogue with this individual. Driving is often the last means of independence, because it provides the elderly with the opportunity to visit friends, go shopping, and manage other tasks of daily life. Elderly drivers may get defensive and angry upon hearing that someone is attempting to take away this freedom. Thus, approaching this subject with realistic expectations is critical.
It is important to introduce this subject at a quiet time when both you and the elderly driver are relaxed, without any other immediate concerns. It is also preferable to include the elderly person in the decision-making process, if possible, instead of dictating a decision to them.
You may wish to discuss this matter together with other family members, doctors, and people that the elderly person respects. You might try having the elder write down both pros and cons, in the hope that they will realize that there are benefits to not driving. The initial conversation does not need to yield permanent decisions. Often it is preferable to put the discussion on temporary hold for a few days, to allow time for reflection on various options.
Caregivers and family members may also get assistance from all available resources to facilitate the determination of whether or not the elder should be driving. One option is offered through Weldon Rehabilitation Services on Carew Street in Springfield. They have developed a program to assess an individual’s ability to drive safely. The Driving Assessment Program will take approximately 90 minutes to complete. It commences with a licensed and registered occupational therapist providing a clinical evaluation. If warranted, an on-road evaluation and on-road training with a licensed driving instructor may also occur.
Upon the completion of the evaluation, the results and appropriate recommendations will be discussed with the driver and their physician. The program evaluates vision and perception, physical status, mobility, upper- and lower-extremity reaction time, traffic sign/situation identification and interpretation, cognition, and adaptive equipment. A family member may accompany the elder to the evaluation. To schedule an evaluation, contact the Driver Advisement Program at Mercy Medical Center’s Weldon Rehabilitation Services (413-748-6880).
Other resources to consider are the Berkshire Medical Center’s Driver Evaluation Program in Pittsfield (413-447-2000); the Fairlawn Rehabilitation Hospital’s Driving Evaluation Program in Worcester (508-791-6351); the AARP’s Driver Safety Course (888-227-7669 or http://www.aarpdriversafety.org); the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists, which offers referrals to professionals trained to help people with disabilities, including those associated with aging (866-672-9466); and the AAA Mature Operator Program (800-622-9211).
If the elderly driver cannot operate a vehicle safely and refuses to stop driving, then further action may be warranted. There are several options available:
• Stage an intervention. This involves family members, health care workers, and anyone respected by the elderly driver, uniting to talk to the elder, firmly but compassionately, in an effort to help the senior accept the issue.
• Contact the local Department of Motor Vehicles and register a complaint. You may wish to do this anonymously.
• If all else fails, you may need to disable the car. This subterfuge should always be a last resort, but sadly, some families do find it necessary. This could include taking away the car keys, disconnecting the battery, or moving the vehicle to a location beyond the elderly person’s control. Duplicity is not a long-term solution, but if there is an immediate need to get the elder off the road, it is sometimes necessary.
Denying an elderly person a driver’s license can be an extremely traumatic event. Restricting or removing an elderly person’s right to drive should be done with careful planning, and by taking advantage of the community resources available.
Todd C. Ratner is a shareholder with Bacon Wilson, and member of the firm’s estate planning, elder, real estate, and business & corporate departments. He handles all aspects of estate planning and probate and real estate, as well as general business matters. He is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and was a recipient of Boston Magazine’s Massachusetts Super Lawyers Rising Stars award from 2007-2012, and Lawyers Weekly Up & Coming Lawyer in 2014; (413) 781-0560; [email protected]