When to take away the keys: a Region 8 News special report

When to take the keys
A photo of Lois Linn as a young woman growing up on a farm in rural Oklahoma. (Source: Ina Brown)
A photo of Lois Linn as a young woman growing up on a farm in rural Oklahoma. (Source: Ina Brown)
Lois Linn remembers driving through the Rocky Mountains in her seventies. She drove until the age of 95. (Source: KAIT-TV)
Lois Linn remembers driving through the Rocky Mountains in her seventies. She drove until the age of 95. (Source: KAIT-TV)
Dr. Thomas Mulligan, Director of the Center on Aging-Northeast, explains the connection between taking away the keys and an increase in depression among elderly parents. (Source: KAIT-TV)
Dr. Thomas Mulligan, Director of the Center on Aging-Northeast, explains the connection between taking away the keys and an increase in depression among elderly parents. (Source: KAIT-TV)
Older drivers are more likely to die in a car accident because of their fragility. (Source: KAIT-TV)
Older drivers are more likely to die in a car accident because of their fragility. (Source: KAIT-TV)

It may be one of the toughest conversations you will ever have. But more and more adult children are having to tell an aging parent they can't drive anymore. There are a variety of reasons why. But most often, the concern is safety.

What happens when an elderly parent is denied the chance to drive? What does that do to their health and well-being? After all, the ability to drive is also directly tied with a feeling of independence.

Lois Linn knows that well. She drove her own car right up until the age of 95.

"She said you can't drive anymore," Linn said, casting a glance in her daughter's direction. "I had a good car."

"I feared for her," Ina Brown, Linn's daughter, said. "Something might happen and people would not find her for a long time, because it was a rural area."

Linn, at that time, lived seven hours away from Brown in Oklahoma. One of 12 children from a farm family, Linn can't remember a time she didn't drive.

"She could drive a tractor with no problem at all," Brown said. Linn even drove a fifth wheel camper through the Rocky Mountains.

"I've been driving a long time," Linn said. "

"We view driving privileges as a right, and it’s a major source of our independence," said Dr. Thomas Mulligan, geriatrician with the Center on Aging-Northeast.

Mulligan says the issue is one of safety, but its multi-faceted.

"A lot of seniors will develop depression when they can't drive anymore," Mulligan said. "It often means that living independently in their homes is impossible."

"It made me mad," Linn said. "It made me mad because she wouldn't let me drive and what difference did it make? I can drive. She didn't think I could."

"We experienced the anger," Brown said. "But, we also were well in tune to her safety and that comes first."

"I've had at least one patient who was killed in a motor vehicle accident, because she didn't want to stop driving," Mulligan explained. 

He says it's important that adult children or other loved ones know the warning signs associated with when it might be time to take away the keys. He says getting lost, having fender benders, getting traffic tickets or displaying an inability to judge depth, or problems with spatial perception are all warning signs. So is dementia.

Safety, not age, should be first and foremost about taking away the keys. In Arkansas and Missouri, state law requires drivers 70 and older to renew their license in person and they must take a vision test, too. The ability to see and react on the roadway is key; not only to the aging parent, but to everyone around them on the road.

"When I'm developing Alzheimer's disease, I'm going to lose the ability to tell how fast a car is approaching that I'm going to have to turn in front of, or behind," Mulligan said.

Older drivers are more likely to die if involved in a crash, according to AAA. Seniors have a four times higher accident rate.

Mulligan says he has, on occasion, had to report a patient to the DMV.

"She drove right through the church playground," Mulligan said. "More than once!"

So, what do you do? Well, some adult children hide the keys from their parents. 

Ina tried to disconnect the battery on her mother's car. But, Linn soon figured it out.

"I thought there's got to be a different approach," Brown said. So she appealed to her mother's frugal side—having lived through the Great Depression.

"I told her, 'Mom, you're spending X amount of dollars on your car," Brown said. "She thought about it for a minute and said, 'No! That's wasting money' and that was the turnaround."

"I hope that you know how much I love you," Mulligan role-played the conversation adult children should have when they feel it's time to take away the keys. "They found you on the side of the road. You could have been killed, Diana. We really need to get you evaluated to see if there's a way to improve your driving skills. And if we just can't, you've got to let me drive you around.  You just can't keep driving."      

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - Copyright 2016 KAIT. All rights reserved.

Watch Region 8 News On Demand: On your Desktop | On your Mobile device

Region 8 News App - Install or update on your: iPhone | Android