When you’re elderly, driving or even riding in a car can be challenging. Medications, limited mobility, and cognitive issues may be problematic, but there are several devices that can make car travel easier.
To making travel more comfortable, we found these car aids for seniors:
- Step stools
- Automotive standing aides
- Car cane standing aids
- Swivel seat cushions
- Leg lift straps
- Seat belt reacher handles
- Seat belt buckle holders
- Easy seat belt unbucklers
- Seat belt extenders
- Buckle guards
- Gas cap remover tools
Why Car Travel Is Often Difficult For Seniors
Physical and cognitive changes could mean a senior might need an aid or two to be able to get into your car comfortably – or even their own.
Car aids can help with:
- Entering and exiting the car
- Rotating the body into or out of a seat
- Lifting the legs into or out of the car
- Reaching, buckling and unbuckling seat belts
In my mom’s later years, she always had trouble when she rode in any type of car. This was because:
- Their automobile was a sedan and the seats were lower to the ground. This made it difficult for her to get the right leverage when getting in the car or exiting it. The problem became even more pronounced after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
- Both she and my dad had problems reaching for, buckling, and unbuckling their seat belts.
- Sitting down was easy due to gravity, but rotating or twisting her body to face forward afterward was tough for her. Getting out of the car meant the same issues, but in reverse.
- She didn’t have the strength to lift her legs into or out of the car. Sometimes she even had problems with trying to lift up her leg with her hands after she was seated.
Mom had trouble getting into and out of cars because the seats were too low to the ground. Her weak leg muscles wouldn’t keep her steady.
So, when I bought a new car, I made a point to buy an SUV with running boards. I was pretty excited that they would give her a built-in ledge to step on when I drove her around on errands.
What I didn’t expect was that the running board would confuse my mom. She couldn’t figure out which leg to use to step up on them. Since they turned out to be more trouble than I’d hoped, I gave up and got her a car step stool instead.
You can use one that you already have at home or buy one specifically for automobile use. In my case, I already had a step stool in the house, so I brought it along whenever I knew I was going to be driving Mom somewhere.
This is a great solution – as long as someone else is driving and can put the step stool in the car so the passenger has it at their destination. But, it doesn’t work so well if the senior is the driver and has to lift it off the ground and into the car on their own.
In that case, get a light-weight step stool and tie a strap or rope around it. Once the senior is seated in the car, they can pull the stool up by the rope.
Also, be sure any stool you use has a non-slip surface on the step. And, make sure it can support the user’s weight (most can hold 250 -300 pounds).
Automotive Standing Aides
Automotive standing aides (check price online) are nylon straps with a handle on one end. The senior uses the handle to pull themselves up from sitting (or to lower themselves down into the car).
To use it:
- Roll down the window part way
- Slide one end of the strap through the window, then buckle it (the length of the strap is adjustable to 7” – 16” so it works for seniors of varying heights)
- Grasp the handle and pull yourself up. The strap supports up to 250 pounds.
One drawback is that you have to be careful to know where the buckle is before you close the car door or you may break the fastener. Another is that it may get in the way of the driver’s view if they are the one using it.
Car Cane Standing Aids
I love the Stander HandyBar Car Cane Plus so much that I just gave this one to a senior friend who recently had a knee replacement.
The Car Cane works in most cars. To use it, you insert it into the door latch (also known as the striker latch) of the auto. Either turn the handle out (away from the car) or sideways across the threshold of the door.
When the senior is ready to get into or out of the car, they grasp the handle, then use it for leverage. It features a non-slip grip handle so the user can stand up or sit down onto a vehicle’s seat more safely.
The Stander HandyBar Car Cane supports up to 300 pounds but weighs only 10 ounces. It’s portable if the person can’t store it in the car or is using it to travel in your car or is ridesharing. For added safety, it also has a seat belt cutter in the handle and the tip can break a window if there is an accident. This model also has a flashlight in the handle.
One potential drawback to the HandyBar is that the user has to remember to take it out of the latch before they shut the door. This could be a problem if they are distracted by gathering up coats, purses, etc.
Tip: This device will not work with a car door that latches with a bolt. You must have a latch that attaches to the door frame with two bolts or screws. Check your latch before you get one of these!
Swivel cushions can be very helpful if a senior has trouble pivoting around on the seat of a car when getting in or out. They have a stable base with a seat cushion that rotates to make it easier for someone to get their legs into the car.
The user simply places the cushion on the car’s seat, sits down on it, and then swings their legs into the car. Since most of these type of cushions can pivot 360 degrees, the person also can swivel the other way to exit the auto.
They are made to support up to 300 pounds, depending on the cushion, but are very light themselves. This means they are portable, so the senior could use this in the house, then can easily take it along in the car when they travel.
That being said, there are some drawbacks to swivel cushions:
- They can be difficult to use in a car with bucket seats because the cushion is generally too large for this type of seat.
- Swivel cushions sink into the seat under the weight of the user, which may mean the seat won’t rotate easily if a larger person sits on it.
- Some swivel cushions don’t have much padding, so they can be uncomfortable to sit on for long periods of time.
Tip: I know this will sound strange, but there is an easy, super cheap way to help a senior slide into/out of a car seat. Use either a plastic garbage bag or a square of silky material (slippery side facing up).
The senior simply spreads the garbage bag or silky cloth across the seat of the car, sit down, then pivot around on the slick material until both legs are inside the car. It works in reverse when they are ready to get out.
I know this makes it easier because I used a length of silk material when I had a double mastectomy for breast cancer. After surgery, I couldn’t use my arms or chest muscles to get out of bed, off a couch, or into the car. Since the silk was smooth, I could slide across it easily, so I could get up and down without much effort.
Leg Lifter Straps
They have a loop for your foot at one end and a loop for your hand at the other end. For stability, the leg lifter should have at least a semi-rigid aluminum rod encased in the strap between the loops. This rod makes it simple for the person to position it over their foot without bending over.
They come in a couple of different lengths, ranging from about 32 inches for shorter people to 40 inches for taller adults. Be sure you check the size before you order one (click the image if you want to see one on Amazon).
Not only are leg lifter straps great for car travel, they are also helpful for those who have trouble with their legs when they get into bed or off the couch.
Seat Belt Reacher Handle
No matter whose car they rode in, my parents had trouble with seat belts. They couldn’t reach back far enough behind them to grab the belt in the first place. Then they couldn’t fasten it once they got a hold of it.
It got to the point where I literally helped one parent into the car, grabbed their seat belt and fastened it, then jogged around to the other side of the car to do the same for the other parent.
I wish I had known about seat belt reacher handles back then. These lightweight, rubber handles attach to the strap of the seat belt. They extend forward 7 inches so the senior doesn’t have to twist to grab the belt – it is right within reach.
If your parent has limited mobility or shoulder pain, a reacher will reduce strain, too.
One drawback to these handles is that they often slip down the seat belt, so the senior may struggle to reach it down by the floor.
Additionally, if the driver uses it, it’s possible the handle may keep bumping them in the shoulder which could be annoying.
Seat Belt Buckle Holders
These little silicone rectangles are worth their weight in gold.
As I mentioned in the last section, I used to make myself crazy buckling and unbuckling my parents into their seat belts because they had such a hard time doing it on their own.
They often couldn’t find the seat belt fastener in the first place. Even if they had the buckle in their hands, they often couldn’t turn to see it, so they tried to latch the belt by feel.
This problem is solved with a seat belt buckle holder. The senior doesn’t have to fish around trying to find the buckle because the holder keeps it upright and easily accessible.
Some buckle holders are made of plastic, which can damage cloth upholstery. I like the silicone BuckleUp types made by Wididi because they are soft and flexible and won’t harm fabric.
To install, just slip the holder over the seat belt latch. It’s a tight fit, but they do have a little “give” so they work with most seat belts.
Tip: These are meant for floppy seat belt latches (the kind with a strap and a buckle). They won’t work on the short buckles in some cars and SUVs. The dimensions of the Buckle Up’s opening are 1.85 inches x 1.02 inches. Check to be sure they will fit before you order them for your vehicle.
Easy Seatbelt Unbuckler
My parents had an awful time with seat belts! They either had trouble reaching them in the first place (see above) or could hardly buckle or unbuckle them. Plus, Mom’s fingers were painful and gnarled from arthritis which didn’t make it easy for her to fasten a seat belt.
Seat belt unbucklers to the rescue!
The UnBuckleMe is marketed for unlatching the buckles on children’s car seats, but they also work great for seniors with weak or arthritic fingers.
Did you know that it takes about 9 pounds of pressure to unbuckle a seat belt? No wonder many elderly people have a hard time with them.
The UnBuckleMe reduces this pressure requirement by about 50 percent. To use it:
- Slide it around the seat belt buckle
- Put the peg over the button of the latch
- Squeeze to push the button and open the buckle
A nice advantage is that the device is about the size of your palm so it’s easy to slip into a pocket or purse for use in any car.
Click the image of the UnBuckleMe to check the price on Amazon.
Seat Belt Extender
Have you or a loved one ever ridden with the seat belt across the lap, but with the shoulder strap tucked behind the shoulder? We get it – sometimes car seat belts are too tight or aren’t comfortable across the shoulders, chest or stomach.
For seniors with COPD or those who need to use oxygen, the sensation of a tight seat belt can make them feel like they can’t breathe. I have a friend who struggles with this – he’s constantly pulling at his seat belt to loosen it across his chest. Additionally, people with shoulder pain or neck problems often have trouble with seat belts.
This is where seat belt extenders come in. They lengthen the belt by several inches and put it in a different position across the body. This relieves pressure, making car travel more comfortable.
Tip: Check the size of the car’s seat belt tongue before you buy one. This is the metal part that latches into the buckle. Different cars can have different size seat belts, so measure the one that the senior will use to be sure the extender will fit.
Seat belt buckle guards like the Buckleroo are great for caregivers of a loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Like the UnBuckleMe, this device is marketed for parents and kids, but works well for seniors, too. It prevents someone from unbuckling the seat belt while you are driving
Basically, it’s a shatter-proof plastic “cap” that fits over the top of the seat belt buckle. When the guard is in place, you can’t get your fingers underneath it to open the latch on the belt.
Installation is not required – just place the guard on top of the seat belt’s buckle receptacle (again, like putting a cap over it). Fasten the seat belt just like you always do.
To open the seat belt, you push a regular car key through the small opening in the guard and press the button to unlatch the belt.
While I think the concept is great, there are a few drawbacks you should be aware of:
- It could be difficult to get someone unbuckled if there is an accident. The Buckleroo does come with a small, breakaway safety “key” to use in emergencies, though.
- It only works with an actual key. It won’t work with the key fobs that come with newer cars.
- It isn’t attached to anything so there is the potential for losing it.
Gas Cap Remover Tool
Gas cap remover tools work great for seniors with weak hands or wrists, or arthritis in their fingers.
To open the car’s gas cap, fit the tool over the cap, then pull up to loosen. To tighten the gas cap after filling the car’s tank, fit the tool over the cap and push down.
Some gas cap remover tools are flat and fit easily in the pocket of the car door.
Others have a handle that comes straight out of the device so the user can turn it with both hands. This type will likely have to be stored on the floor behind the driver’s seat or in the car trunk.
Before you order one for your senior loved one, check to see which kind will work best for their needs.
When Should Seniors Stop Driving?
I’ve been talking about car aids for seniors, which brings me to the question of their ability to drive. Are you worried about your parent’s driving? Should they give it up?
There’s no easy answer for when the elderly should stop driving, but you can read more about how to decide if it’s time and alternatives for when they do give up driving:
How do you travel with elderly people?
- Choose non-stop flights, get to the airport early
- Reserve special services beforehand (seating, wheelchairs, etc)
- Car trips may require frequent restroom stops
- Keep essentials (sweater, medicine, snacks) within easy reach
- Research medical care at the destination
- For family vacations, consider a cruise
Can an elderly person fly? Usually, yes, but check with their doctor to ensure medical issues won’t make it unsafe. Arrange for any medical equipment or mobility aid needs, reserve special services (wheelchairs at all airports, air travel assistance). Pack medicine in a bag to keep with them. Consider TSA Precheck enrollment.