Can Psychologists Help Families With Dangerous Older Drivers?

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Can Psychologists Help Families With Dangerous Older Drivers?

By Carolyn L. Rosenblatt, RN, BSN, Attorney, and Dr. Mikol S. Davis

An older driver plows his car through the garage and goes over a hill. A senior steps on the gas instead of the brake and smashes into six parked cars. The sensitive issue of dangerous older drivers is grabbing our attention. If you haven’t been hit by one, you probably know someone who has. Our population is living longer than ever, and this creates a growing problem: when should a person stop driving?

Freedom, control, independence and a host of other practical transportation problems are at stake when the senior thinks about giving up the keys. Panic may arise at the thought. Families struggle with how to say “it’s time to sell the car, Dad” and who should do it. Denial and avoidance are common. Stubborn refusal to stop driving can explode into battles with aging parents.

Can psychologists be of help? We think so. Communication about the problem of having an aging parent or other relative who shouldn’t be driving is fraught with difficulty. Families don’t often think of getting outside help, but at, where we consult with families on aging issues, we recommend getting help from professionals as part of a five step plan.

Family conflicts emerge from our sense of individual freedom and our need to set limits on that freedom when the time comes. The right to drive is sacrosanct. Few people are willing surrender that right. Some will do almost anything to prevent losing their independence, a perception aggravated by dementias and other cognitive impairments.

All states recognize driving as a right. None have a cutoff age for driving, though some require driving re-testing on an annual basis after a certain age, such as 80. Because we all age differently, and some people are safe drivers even in very advanced years, it would violate their rights to make it mandatory to stop when they can pass the driving tests required by their states.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles provides some help for those whose family members may be in denial about the effects of aging, or simply too impaired by conditions such as dementia to appreciate how impaired they are becoming behind the wheel. The DMV website provides a Request for Retesting form, which can be sent anonymously. A reportedly unsafe driver can be required to come in to the DMV for retesting because of the request.

If a family member sends in the request anonymously, you can imagine that the elder will be suspicious. “Who did this to me?” Relationships can be damaged, but an aging parent’s safety and that of the public must be a priority. How a family handles this emotionally charged issue is critical to how well the aging parent can adjust. As many families suffer from various dysfunctions, and communication may be less than ideal, we like the idea of bringing in a professional to assist.

In our book, The Boomer’s Guide to Aging Parents, How to Handle a Dangerous Older Driver, we suggest successive and progressive techniques in which the family uses its own resources first in an attempt to get their older driver to voluntarily retire from driving. If the first two techniques fail, we then suggest getting outside help. We see this as ideal place to use the skills of a psychologist or other mental health professional to effectively communicate with and reassure the elder that all his or her freedom won’t be taken away and that the elder has good support.

In the fourth of these techniques, we suggest intervention as a method to try to get the elder to give up the keys. Intervention here is different, of course, from that applied to substance abuse, as the goal is not treatment. However, the concept of a supportive confrontation by various family members led by a skilled person is the essence of this intervention. A psychologist would be an ideal professional to lead such an intervention.

We recommend using a leader who has experience with conflicts if an intervention becomes necessary. We think mental health professionals are well equipped to handle this challenge. The risk of a poorly done intervention could be disastrous to family relationships. The benefit of a well handled intervention to get an aging parent to give up the keys could be avoidance of legal action, maintaining the dignity of the elder, and overall reduction of conflict around this issue in a family.

For mental health professionals who are interested in elders and their families, we see an emerging role: the psychologist as the one to turn to when a driving issue is turning into a firestorm in a family. Smoothing of family fights over dangerous older drivers may not be what you studied in school, but it may be one of the next areas where communication skills can truly help our world.


The Boomer’s Guide to Aging Parents is available at in print, audio and downloadable formats. The 55 page minibook, How to Handle a Dangerous Older Driver is also available separately.

© 2010,

Last Updated ( Thursday, 08 July 2010 20:34 )

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