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Beuna May Bugel: When to 'take the keys'

My great-grandfather Arvid was in his early 1990s and planning to see a family member a good distance away. On this day, Arvid backed out of the same driveway that he backed out thousands of times in the last 50-plus years. Only on this day, Arvid backed up too far and hit his neighbor's apple tree.

The back end of the car was dented, numerous apples and branches landed on the roof. Only Arvid didn't realize he hit anything. He kept driving his car to Russ Johnson's full-service station.

The attendant took one look at the car after Arvid told him to "Fill it up; I'm off to Wisconsin," and told Arvid he wasn't driving anywhere. Due to Arvid's agreeable nature, he never drove a car again after this day.

Arvid is not the norm, though, when it comes to seniors giving up their car keys. Next to moving out of their home, giving up one's car keys is perhaps the most traumatic step associated with advancing age. I have congregation members who on every visit will express how they can't believe the kids took away "the keys."

The problem is when seniors should give up the car keys isn't always clear-cut. Esther was about to turn 97 years old. Esther's driving license was up for renewal.

One day while visiting with her, she asked if I thought she should keep driving. I knew the stakes for the question were high.

I asked, "How's your eyesight?"


I then asked if she ever had problems with reaction time, to which I was informed she didn't.

I knew Esther was correct as she had recently come in second in a senior-living class during a home fitness test, beating others more than 30 years younger at the time. I also knew Esther restricted her driving to town traveling primarily to the store, church and Golden Agers.

I then told Esther that I saw no reason why she should stop driving at this time.

When seniors should give up their car keys is not an easy question. Accident risk increases every year after age 65. This risk gets more pronounced every passing year due to declines in eyesight, reaction time and motor skills. I do believe all of these things require awareness and conversations regarding driving limits.

As we consider driving risk within seniors, I believe the wrong thing to do is take away car keys at the first sign of increased risk. I believe the wrong approach is one that disrespects a senior's dignity in the matter. A great frustration that I encounter in seniors is when they feel they are being treated like children even when they're of sound mind. In an ideal world, seniors would be aware of limitations of the types of driving that should be avoided. A gradual retirement from driving in many cases might be the best solution.

If one is concerned regarding their or a loved one's ability to drive, the best resolution is an independent evaluation conducted by a doctor or an occupational therapist who can test things like eyesight, memory, reflexes and hearing to determine one's fitness to drive.

Once the car keys are taken away, family and community members assume the extra burden of seeking to prevent their loved one's isolation. Driving services such as those offered by North Shore Area Partners in the Silver Bay Area or Community Partners in the Two Harbors Area can assist in this regard.

There is a time for seniors to give up car keys. I was recently talking to a congregation member about his driving. The gentleman, soon to be 93 years old, has limited eyesight. He proceeded to tell me that "I'm fine driving as long as other people tell me what to do and where to turn."

I'm grateful that this gentleman has a partner, family members and community members who seek to keep him active and thriving within the community in spite of no longer having car keys.

Pastor Stew Carlson is the grandson of Beuna May Carlson of Lindstrom, Minn. He is also the board chairman for North Shore Area Partners and pastor of Sychar Lutheran Church in Silver Bay. He can be reached at