The Gift of Age
The International Elders

When an Elder Must Stop Driving

category_bug_journal2.gif Several times in the past we have discussed age and driving and the day that comes to many when we must stop driving for our own and everyone else’s safety. Sometimes it is a parent we care for whose keys must be confiscated and last week Candace Craw-Goldman, who blogs at In Repose, emailed about her mother who is 80 and lives with Candace:

“Physically she is pretty weak, has a frozen shoulder, spinal stenosis, a bulging disk, does not have full use of her arms and walks with a cane. She is forgetful at times and gets very anxious and takes anti-anxiety medication. She…has congestive heart failure, is pacemaker dependent and has some other medical problems.”

Candace was reluctant when for weeks her mother pestered her about being allowed to drive to the grocery or Wal*Mart, but finally relented if her mother followed Candace and Candace’s daughter as they drove:

“In just the four miles from our home to the first stoplight we watched her in our mirrors and counted 20 times that mom left her lane. The road is hilly…and curvy. 17 times her tires crossed over to the left, 3 times to the right. I thought very hard about pulling over but there were no other cars on the road at that time and pulling over would have been an additional safety hazard of its own. We got her safely to the Walmart parking lot…”

Needless to say, Candace’s mother is now grounded – no more driving. But she is petulant about it, believes Candace invented the number of lane-crossings and feels defeated, causing a lot of family friction.

Candace works in the time to drive her mother, but she’s busy and cannot always do it when her mother wants. There is a local taxi service, but her mother has never taken a taxi and is frightened of new things.

It must be awful to be forced to give up an important privilege that at the early end of life marks our passage into adulthood and responsibility. By the time one can no longer safely drive, we’ve had decades of practice at being an adult and when the keys are taken away, it is like being made a child again, deprived by others and now dependent on them.

It is not just elders who have trouble learning new things. All my life, when confronted with a new situation, I’ve wanted to know as much as possible about how it is done before I do it. Look at all there is to learn if you’ve never taken a taxi:

  1. How do you order the taxi on the telephone? Can you book a time or even days in advance?
  2. Can you talk to the driver while riding?
  3. How do you pay? (When, after my first taxi ride in London, I tried to pay from the back seat as in New York, the driver insisted I get out first and pay him through the window.)
  4. How much do you tip?
  5. Will the taxi wait at the supermarket or Wal*Mart or must you call from the market when you are done?
  6. If so, is using a cell phone another learning curve?
  7. Can the driver be asked to help get packages into the car?
  8. Will the taxi driver help get packages into the house?

For a big-city person, taxis are second nature but for others, when you break down the steps, there is a lot to learn if you’ve never taken a taxi, are shy of new things and don’t want to feel like an idiot for not knowing the drill.

Giving up driving may be as big a rite of passage as getting a drivers license in the first place, a 50th birthday, marriage, etc. - a giant transition into a new way of living. It is hard to admit to oneself that you are no longer competent to drive - and it will never change. You are not going to “get well”. In addition to whatever health conditions an elder lives with, turning in our keys is one more intimation of mortality.

Some elders make these transitions with little fuss; others do not. I’m not a psychologist and don’t know how best to deal with the intransigence someone like Candace’s mother expresses about giving up this kind of independence. But it’s not hard to understand that it is a painful crossing of a great divide.

When we must be the bad guy our job, I think, is to figure out what we can do to ease them through the change in their lives. And maybe in doing so it is also practice for the day when we too must make a similar transition.

[In an era when everyone dances without a partner, is there still such a thing as a wallflower? Today at The Elder Storytelling Place, Ronni Prior recalls what it was like to be one in Teenage Wasteland.]


Comments

Excellent post, ma'am. I know of one lady who was well into her 90's and still driving. She did (point of fact) die while doing so, but not from any fault of her own other than perhaps suffering a heart attack. Another woman (who led me to Christ) was in her late 70s, I suppose, when she drove to the end of her driveway and (by her own admission) could not remember what to do next. As she put it, of her own accord, she finally put it in reverse, backed up, parked it behind the house, and thus ended all future excursions with her behind the wheel. She would die with Alzheimers, her fifth husband becoming her chauffeur, surviving her well into his late 80s.

I know someone right now who cannot get his mother to stop driving even though she is clearly not the same driver she once was. That list of taxi tips is a great idea. As a city person, I, too, have taken many cabs but never thought about it as being a challenge for someone who has not.

I am not looking forward to the time when I can no longer drive, as it has been one of my pleasures since I was 17. My dad was forced to give up driving at age 90 and he went downhill from the moment he was told he couldn't drive anymore. The psychological confinement is almost worse than the physical.

You'll laugh but what I was most afraid of messing up when I first used a taxi? What seat do you get in? Was it rude to get into the back seat or an intrusion of personal space to sit in the front?

I voluntarily gave up driving after having a minor accident that was my fault. I knew I was not seeing as well as I should as decided that I would quit before I killed someone.

Many times since doing so I have said, "If I knew how hard it would be I would not have given up my car." For years I rode the bus. When that was no longer feasible I relied on the kindness of friends. Eventually, I became disabled enough to qualify for access to a city van for the handicapped. It's not fun, but it's better than having another accident; perhaps a worse one.

My Mother, through out my life had given me many gifts - one of the best was handing me her car keys at age 84 and saying that she would no longer be a driver. All she would say was that 'it was time...'

I do not know whether or not she had a 'scare' - but that transition was made so simple for those that loved her. Her advice to me about driving as one ages was to write myself a letter -telling myself to evaluate my driving skill-set and to read it on my birthday each year...and to review a copy of the Driver's Training Manual once a year. After she died, I found HER letter to herself What a woman! She wrote her letter the year she retired as a Public Health Nurse.

So I now do as she suggested and smile as I do so.

My mother could not make the transition. She killed someone and maimed another when she had a small stroke while backing up in a parking lot. She was very timid about new things and that prevented her from being able to be smart about her own limitations.

As I age, I too find myself being timid about new things. Having spent the last week in Mexico, I am distressed with my own timidity about venturing the small store of Spanish I know -- and my dependence on others for such things as dealing with taxis. I wonder if I was less inhibited when I was younger? Not sure about that.

Not only is it a steep learning curve to learn the whole taxi transaction, there is another scary part: Very few American places have reliable taxi service.

A New Yorker or Washingtonian would be astonished at the huge number of rural or suburban areas where the "taxi company" (if any) has two drivers on a good day.

There are, if you think about it, a huge number of transportation-challenged Americans:

1) Everybody under 16.
2) An unknown percentage of seniors...likely to increase in the next few decades.
3) Poor people who are in part kept that way by the huge costs of driving. Even a paid-for used car costs an estimated $6,000-7,000 a year just to operate.
4) People who have temporary illnesses or injuries that prevent them from driving.

The enemy here is really the idea that "everybody" drives and when you don't, you automatically become "nobody."

I drive, but I've never been comfortable in a driving-only world. You're always only one fan belt away from disaster anyway, and I suspect we have seen our last $2.00/gallon gas as the world's oil becomes scarcer.

And even if everything else works out, you could break your right foot. Hello, Bud & Elmer's Taxi Company?

Anyone over 50 interested in maintaining daily independence should seriously think about moving to where there's a decent transit system AND more than one cab company. Then learn how to use them before you really, really need them.


When I was 20 or so, I watched my father take away his own father's car keys. The job was not elegantly done, and I vowed to do better if the necessity ever arose.

About 30 years later, I found myself faced with taking my mother's keys. In retrospect, I would say I didn't do an elegant job either.

My hunch is that there isn't a very nice way to do it. By the time my father took action, my grandfather was a menace on the road, although he didn't think so. By the time I acted, my mother couldn't reliably find her way home. She was involved in a couple of fender benders. She didn't understand what the big deal was. After all, people have accidents. It's why we have auto insurance.

I was insistent and got the keys. As kind as I tried to be, I no doubt hurt her feelings. I simply didn't know how to be gentle enough to prevent hurt feelings, but firm enough to get the damn keys.

In the fullness of time--when I'm the one whose keys have to be confiscated--I'm likely to get my feelings hurt. Sometimes doing the right thing is just hard.

I remember being stopped at a light at a major intersection near home. The light turned green, but the large van to my left did not move so I didn't either.
Then I saw my father sail right across in front of us. Terrifying. I think his reaction to the yellow light was too slow. But nobody took his keys. By himself, first he stopped driving at night and in bad weather, then completely.
A couple weeks ago my aunt's husband in Florida had a stroke and she decided she would renew her license and start driving again to be able to visit him in the hospital. Her vision is bad. A neighbor convinced that Florida won't issue a license to a person over 90.
Writing a letter to yourself to honestly review your abilities every year is a great idea.

I wrote the above entry. Forgot to fill in name and address. I usually do it after I write my comment so I can check for typos before posting post haste.

The hardest thing I think has been to convince my mother that I personally gain NO great thing by making her even MORE dependent on me.

WHY would I take her keys if it was not the right thing to do? It makes my life even *harder*, so why would I do such a thing if it was not completely necessary?

Why in heaven's name, would my daughter and I both lie about how she navigated the road? And yet this is what she thinks we have done, set her up and conspire and lie.

I have opened my heart and my home to her. I am a responsible, successful adult in a stable marriage with well adjusted teenage children.

How can she think I would just out of the blue impose an unreasonable restriction on her?
And yet, this is how she feels.

When I was the mother of toddlers I insisted on independence even sooner than my neighbors of similarly aged children. I like the people around me to be as independent as possible.

I also insist that they react as safely and as responsibly as possible and for my mom, that means she has held the wheel for the last time.

I would add another unknown for an older person contemplating taking a taxi for the first time. How much is it going to cost? Around here most taxi companies will give an estimate according to the distance.

I worried a lot about my dad's driving at age 91 but did not know what to do about it since I lived in Europe at the time. Then the Wellfleet police solved the problem. They had been worried, too. One night a cruiser waited for my parents to exit a local restaurant. When Dad turned left onto Route 6, the cruiser followed and stopped my dad's car. The officier did not do a breathalizer test although Dad had consumed a glass of wine. The policeman did take away Dad's permit, claiming DUI. My father must have realized there was no point trying to retrieve it. He never drove again. My parents continued to go to the same restaurant every Thursday but hired someone to do the driving. Afterwards it occurred to me that other adult children of people who should no longer be driving might ask the local police to get involved this way ...

I'm 81 and still driving, mostly in the daytime. The only time I drive after dark is when I am familiar with the road and even then I'm not as comfortable as I am driving during the day.

I guess that's the first sign that my driving is getting limited. Sometimes if I am not familiar with the route ( even in the daytime) I take the MBTA Ride which gets me where I want to go. It takes longer but I get there without the stress of going to an unfamiliar place.

Adjustments, adjustments, adjustments.

Millie...

It's not just age that limits night driving. Even in my 20s I had difficulty judging distances in the dark and have driven at night since then only when there was no other recourse and avoided highways if at all possible.

You are so right about "adjustment, adjustment, adjustment".

It was the local police who helped us make the transition with my father. He was stopped by a graveyard 30 miles west of his hometown and wandering through it. The local policeman came over to ask him what was going on. He said he was looking for my mother's grave. (She's not dead.)

When asked for license and registration, my father pulled out a drivers license that had expired two years ago. The policeman explained that to him and he seemed surprised, but said, "Well, I must have another one around here somewhere," patting his pockets.

Because of the expired license, the policeman called my brother at my father's direction, explained the situation, and had my brother pick up my father's car while the policeman drove my father to their home.

He gave the car keys to my brother and we never gave them back to my father. He died of Alzheimer's four years later.

I think this episode was a true gift. Without it, he and my mother would have continued to cover up their missed dentist appointments (they forgot how to get there) and chocolate pie for lunch situation.

I still feel guilty that I wasn't more on top of their driving details at the time.

This is such a hard decision to face. My father is 85 and still drives himself everywhere. Frankly, in the South African city where he lives, there is no other safe or reliable option. To his credit, he has never been involved in a serious accident, and he does drive within his lane and at a reasonable speed. But I try not to drive with him because he does tend to assume that, because he drives this great big Daimler, other people will wait for him when he turns in front of them or sails through orange lights. And when he is my passenger, he yells encouragement at me to do the same! I know that the dreaded conversation about whether he should still be driving is looming in the future and I suspect my brother (who lives in the same town as him) will be the one to tackle it. I also know that this will be the day that my father will start to deteriorate.

My friend's dad was a good driver; he just lost the car, somewhere in the city. He had money to take the train home, but it was no joke, trying to find his car in the area he *thought* he left it, in the freezing cold.

To make matters worse, he leapt up and bought a new one the next week. A month later, he lost that one too. Only then, after an intervention from us, did he quit.

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