Elderly driving: How to talk to your loved ones about handing over the keys

When should elderly drivers hand over keys?

The often-touchy subject of when older drivers should hand over their keys became an international conversation last month when Britain's 97-year-old Prince Philip caused a wreck while behind the wheel. He gave up driving for good – not an easy thing to do for many elderly people who see it as a symbol of independence.

More than 41 million drivers over the age of 65 are on the roads today and crash injuries sent more than 290,000 older adults to the emergency room in 2016 but a new article in the New England Journal of Medicine argues "retirement from driving threatens one's health and wellness."

Eighty-six-year-old Joan Mastrianni has been driving around Albany, New York, since the Eisenhower administration, when she was in her early 20s. While she still hits the road with her 89-year-old husband Anthony to run simple errands, it worries daughter Kathy and her siblings, who wonder if mom should lock the keys away.

"You don't want to wait until an accident happens in order to make that decision. You want to be able to make that decision on your own," Kathy said.

Her mother argues they're not driving far and that "to be able to go to the library and to church and to the grocery store is important." Her husband Anthony added, "There are people who are 40 years old that shouldn't be driving … and I think that people who have good reflexes and all, and are alert and vision is good they could drive when they're 90."  

Deciding when to give up the keys is a personal matter that experts say should not be taken lightly.

"When we get a driver's license it's considered a big part of becoming an adult, so losing your driver's license feels like the opposite of that," said UC San Francisco Professor of Geriatrics Dr. Louise Aronson.

At a class in Long Island, New York, senior citizens like Lois and Murray Schnipper are brushing up on their skills.

"Seniors come in all different sizes and packages and, you know, abilities but I don't think we are being trained individually to recognize when we should not be driving," Lois said.

The educational course gives them a refresher on the rules of the road – like stopping for three seconds, checking your shoulder and keeping your eyes on the road.

"We sort of warn each other about certain things now like I say 'Lois, you shouldn't be talking with your hands while you're driving.' Or something like that. Little things like that," said Lois's husband Murray.

Dr. Louise Aronson warns that taking away the keys away from someone who is older is "proven" to be "absolutely detrimental" to their health.

"It decreases people's ability to get to work, to have fulfilling social lives. Older adults who are socially isolated have huge health risks. It's basically akin to smoking 15 cigarettes a day," Aronson said.

The Mastriannis don't want to give up driving just yet but have a back-up plan for when they put the car in park for good.

"We like the idea that when you want to do something, you get in the car and go. But we have Uber around here and all, if we have to ultimately do that," Anthony Mastrianni said.

"When I don't feel safe, I guess I'll stop," said his wife, Joan.

When it's time to talk to a loved one about possibly giving up their keys, here are a few tips:

  • Check if permanent medical conditions are preventing them from safely driving, such as dementia
  • Have them take a driving test
  • Observe their skills yourself
  • Enroll them in driver safety courses
  • Look for signs they may need to stop driving such as traffic tickets, accidents or anxiety about driving at night
  • When discussing with them, focus on their driving skills not their age
  • Look for local resources that can help people who can't drive