When Is It Okay to Take the Car Keys Away?

Having “the conversation” with your senior parent

By Rabbi Richard F. Address

Eventually, in every caregiving workshop, comes the question of when it’s okay to take the car keys from an aging parent. To this I often remark that if you are ever bored and want to engage in a “fun” conversation, float that trial balloon. One can accept a walker or cane, a hearing aid, and/or bifocal or trifocal eyeglasses, but take the car away? Here is the bottom line: there is no right way, just right times. And you, as a caregiver, will have to try to finesse this as much as possible, unless circumstances dictate otherwise.

I started having this conversation with my mom several years ago. I was usually met with icy silence, as if I had brought news of earth’s imminent demise. Independence, or the fantasy of same, is an American “right,” and nothing in our culture says independence better than our car. Just ask any teenager! So, until last May, my mom ignored her gradual loss of directional sense, the rare TIAs (transient ischemic attacks), and a host of other issues. It seems that she got lost returning home—lost enough for her to panic.

One day we were discussing another list of “issues,” when she turned to me and handed over her car insurance bill. “Do I really need this now? After all, I live in an assisted living facility. Someone will always be around to drive me where I wish to go, and this way I can save all this money for something I do not use that much.”

There it was, the opening. The pretext was money saved; the subtext, her reaction to being lost, forgetting where she lived, and her ensuing panic. Long story short, Mom agreed with me when I suggested that her idea to save all that money was a good one. We let the insurance lapse and sold the car the next week.

That process took about two and a half years from first conversation until final resolution. Time and circumstances allowed this to occur, and, thank God, she was not in any accidents. Not all are so lucky.

Again, there is no correct way to resolve the driving issue. I have heard of adult children allowing the car to remain unrepaired after an accident or “forgetting” to pay license renewals. Others are proactive and just take the car away. This is a life-transition moment of major importance in our culture. Just think about how you would feel if you were unable to drive and were dependent on others for everything from going to the store or the movies to just out for fun.

So here is a hint. This is not a conversation to be taken lightly. It is one that, in most circumstances, must be planned with the knowledge that the entire process may take some time. Good luck.