What to do when it's time to take away the keys

Losing the freedom to drive or operate machinery is one of the most difficult transitions as people age.

By Jodi Henke and Lisa Foust Prater

Many farmers have a hard time giving up their livelihood and freedom, and will fight tooth-and-nail to keep driving their vehicles and tractors. Unfortunately, a decline in physical condition or mental health can impair their ability to safely drive on the farm and on the road.

Whether it’s vision or hearing loss, arthritis or other mobility issues, or dementia, once the ability to make snap decisions and react quickly is diminished, it’s time to take action. Certain medications can also affect the ability to drive safely.

How do you know if it’s no longer safe for a loved one to drive? The National Institute on Aging (NIA) says warning signs include multiple crashes or near misses, unexplained dents, two or more traffic tickets or warnings in the past two years, comments from friends or neighbors, anxiety about driving at night, and frequent complaints from them about the speed or actions of other drivers.

The NIA recommends asking your loved one if other drivers often honk at them, if they ever get lost, if cars or people appear out of nowhere, if it’s difficult to stay in their own lane, or if they have trouble moving between the gas and brake pedals or ever get the two confused.

Start the conversation early

Deborah Reed is a professor and agricultural health nurse, and has done research on this issue at the University of Kentucky. She says if you notice the farmer having problems with cognitive function, it’s important to have the discussion early on.

“Many farms are undergoing a generational transition right now, and actually that’s a good time to start it,” Reed says. She recommends asking your loved one how they would like you to handle the situation if things begin to slip with them mentally.

Once driving and operating machinery becomes a problem, having that conversation is not going to be easy. Even if you approach it with the utmost respect and dignity, chances are good your loved one will be defensive and angry.  

The NIA recommends talking about driving skills rather than the person’s age, and says it’s important to be positive and supportive. Try saying things like, “We’ll work together to find a solution.”

You could point out to your loved one that their safety is at stake, but Reed says farmers generally don’t worry about hurting themselves.

“So, if you tell your mom or dad, ‘You might just die on that tractor,’ they’ll probably tell you, ‘That’s the way I prefer to go,’” she says. “But if you say, ‘We’ve noticed that you can’t see as well, or you’re having trouble with the tractor and your grandchild may be around,’ that’ll put the brakes on the tractor, because no one wants to be responsible for hurting a child, particularly one of your own family members.”

Seek outside help

One way to keep your loved one from seeing you as “the bad guy” — and to prevent the driving issue from being brought up in future disagreements — is to enlist others to help convince them it’s time to turn over the keys. If talks with additional family members and friends don’t do the trick, don’t hesitate to bring out the big guns.

The first option is to talk to your loved one’s doctor, assuming you are listed on their records as someone with whom the doctor is allowed to discuss their care. Voice your concerns, take your loved one in for a check-up, and let the doctor evaluate them. If he or she determines it’s no longer safe for them to drive, it can be explained in medical terms, which makes the situation feel less like a personal attack or judgment.

This also gives the driver a way to explain the situation to friends without hurting their pride. For example, "My doctor says I can’t drive anymore because I lost strength in my foot after my stroke," is an easier pill to swallow than, "My son thinks I’m too old to drive."

Speaking with local law enforcement may also be effective. Discuss your concerns with them privately and ask them to talk with your loved one, either with or without you there.

If that doesn’t work, a doctor or law enforcement officer can report them to the Department of Motor Vehicles. You can even file an anonymous unsafe driver report yourself. The driver will have to go into the DMV and be evaluated to see if it’s safe for them to continue to be on the road.

If they don’t pass the tests, their license may be revoked or limited. Restrictions may include no nighttime driving, driving only under a certain speed limit, staying within a certain distance from their home, or having to come in for more frequent testing in order to keep their license.

Playing hardball

Even if you’re able to get your loved one’s driver’s license limited or revoked, that doesn’t mean they won’t still try to drive, and there’s a good chance they’ll think they’re still fine to operate the tractor and other machinery.

If they’re adamant about refusing to stop, you may have no choice but to physically take and hide the keys, disable their vehicle, and lock up machinery.

Nobody wants it to come to that, but if it does, don’t feel guilty. Stick to your guns, remind them why it isn’t safe, and reassure them that you only want what’s best for them.The most important thing is that your loved one — and everyone else on the road and the farm — stays safe.

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