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If It’s Time to Take A Loved One’s Car Key Away

'Passages' author Gail Sheehy offers suggestions based on her experience


My grandma was what the polite would call “a character.”

The third of nine, my Gram was born the year the Titanic went down. She spent her life doting on her Italian family, even if she couldn’t remember who she was bossing around at the moment, calling out “Angela, Mary, Theresa, Michelle — aww, what the hell is your name?”

Given how feisty my grandma could be, it was no wonder that her caregivers postponed absconding with her car key.

One afternoon, my grandmother picked up her younger sister (her best friend in life) to run an errand. The sun shone into my Gram’s eyes as she turned left when a small truck slammed into her. The police found my grandma’s car upside down. The truck driver was fine, and my grandma was still with us, but her gentle sister was gone. For the rest of her life, my grandmother did not speak of the accident and never drove again.

Taking or “misplacing” an older adult’s car key is not for the faint of heart. True, it’s merely a key, but for decades that small bit of metal roared an engine to life, transporting its owner on countless trips to places like the grocery, the movies, the library and the beach.

Snagging the key for good? Well, we’re essentially extinguishing the engine’s roar, squiring both the older family member and her or his caregiver down a portal layered in irritation, grief and dread for what’s to come.

Gail Sheehy
Gail Sheehy

Gail Sheehy on Other ‘Passages’

For those who find themselves with this unenviable task, it helps to learn from others who have managed it in their own lives. One prominent example is author Gail Sheehy, who introduced us to the life stages of adults in 1977 with her groundbreaking book and New York Times bestseller, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life.

In the 1990s, Sheehy married Clay Felker — the co-founder of New York magazineand went on to become his primary caregiver in his final decade. Felker died in 2008 at 82. In 2010, Sheehy wrote Passages of Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence, which offered another bright light that illuminated a difficult path relative to the stages of life. That book painstakingly details caregiving from A to Z, including strategies for ushering a loved one into living without a car. Sheehy interviewed doctors and experts on aging who emphasized the importance of helping your older loved one understand that it’s time to give up driving, which in turn, leads to an easier process of letting go of the keys.

‘Mobility is One of the Hardest Things to Give Up’

Today, Sheehy recalls how her new beau — Robert Emmett Ginna, Jr. — came to live life without a car. A Harvard professor for two decades, co-founder of People magazine, a WWII Navy veteran and an expert on Ireland, among many more lifelong passions, Ginna is not the type who’d “go gently into the good night” should one think to pocket his car key.

So, Sheehy had to work with Ginna’s son and daughter to convince him to stop driving.

“We were scratching our heads,” says Sheehy. “We wondered: how do we approach this very proud, very stubborn professor who teaches everybody else and drives everywhere all the time? Driving was a big facet of Robert’s independence. Like all people who are aging, mobility is one of the hardest things to give up.”

She says, “One day, Robert was backing out of his driveway onto a rather busy street, a police car was driving at a good clip — and Robert backed right into the cop’s car! The officer was very polite, but said, ‘I think we need to discuss leaving the driving to somebody else.’”

Ginna was unhappy about losing his car, admits Sheehy, “but most places — even small towns — have elder transportation services. So, the older person might have a lot of resistance at first, but sharing transportation can be a social experience because they’re riding with other people from their neighborhood.”

Sheehy emphasizes that the most important concept for caregivers to employ, when it comes to taking the car key away, is being willing to ask for help.

“The place to start,” says Sheehy, “is by accessing the Elder Care Locator by visiting ElderCare.Gov and entering your ZIP code (or by calling 800-677-1116). It’s like a one-stop-shop for the care of older Americans (including topics related to transportation). It’s free. All if you have to do is call them and talk to a care coordinator. They have support programs for family caregivers and you’re perfectly welcome to go back to them to say something didn’t work.”

Suggested Talking Points About Car Keys

Here are some tips on talking to your loved one about relinquishing the car keys:

  • Speak with his or her doctor. Some states require that a doctor diagnosing dementia make a report to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), which will then send a letter to your loved one. (Many states also allow you to make an anonymous report to the DMV.)
  • Talk with your loved one as if you’re on a team. Discuss the issue of the car as if you’re noodling together through the best plan for giving up the vehicle. Treat your loved one with respect versus treating him or her like an errant teen who crashed into the mailbox for the third time.
  • Ask the family lawyer to speak to your loved one about giving up the car.
  • Consider arranging for an independent driving evaluation.
  • Explain why you want to do this. If your loved one is still resistant, look into his or her eyes and gently say, “I cannot get a call that you’ve died on the road or lose you to the grief you will descend into if you hurt somebody. I want you to see the kids grow up, see them graduate and sit in the front row at their weddings. And guess what? I’ll visit more.

If your loved one still can’t come to terms, you likely need to remove the car from the premises or disable it by purchasing an easy-to-use Lock Wheel Clamp/Lock Boot, $25.

By Wendy Irvine
Wendy Irvine is a travel writer living in Atlanta with her twin teens and husband. She writes the JellyfishinJuly blog that features tips and travel hacks created to protect your savings, sanity and safety when traveling with the cutest among us. Follow her on Twitter @JellyfishinJuly.    

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