Minding Our Elders®
By Carol Bradley Bursack
Alice came in saying she’d gotten lost. My mother-in-law had gone to the grocery store – the same one she’d shopped at for thirty years. It was four blocks away. I was staying with my father-in-law because, due to poor health, he couldn’t be left alone. A couple of hours had passed since Alice left and I was worried. Finally, I heard her footsteps in the hall. When she came in she looked shaken. Confused. I asked if she was okay, and she said she was, but there was a hitch in her voice. Then she said she had gotten lost coming home.
That was the last time Alice drove. With my own mother, the need to cease driving was more dramatic. One day when I went to her parking garage to get her car so I could get it filled with washed and filled with gas, I noticed the side was caved in and the yellow marker she parked by had blue paint on it. The same paint as her car.
When I went back to Mom's apartment and carefully mentioned the car she looked totally confused. She didn’t remember anything. We got the car fixed, but it happened once again in less than a week. This time, she finally came out of denial and realized that she shouldn’t drive anymore.
Giving up driving is one of the toughest things required of many elders. It’s not just the driving itself, but the sense of independence it gives most people. When you can no longer choose to hop in your car (or even toddle to it behind your walker) and go somewhere – anywhere - you know you have lost something.
My experience is that it’s tougher on men of my parent’s generation than women. The men tended to identify more with their vehicles and also their independence. My dad and father-in-law weren't too much of a problem. Dad gave in gracefully when his eyes failed, and my father-in-law never really quit – he was just slowly lost the energy to even trudge out to the car, so it happened naturally.
My uncle was another story. Only a massive stroke stopped him completely. What about the senior who won’t give up the keys? Who insists he or she can drive when you know it’s not safe for them or for anyone around them? There are a few options to try before “losing” the keys down the sewer grate. If you are fortunate and your elder has had a particular doctor for an extended time, the doctor’s advice may be enough to convince your loved one to give up the keys. But not always.
There are many excellent resources on giving up driving, but I've selected three that I particularly like. One is The Hartford. This site offers brochures that have great tips on helping seniors know when to stop driving as well as help for caregivers convince those who shouldn’t drive that they need to give up the keys.
Your area Agencies on Aging site also has resources on older driver safety. AAA puts out an interactive computer program where a senior (or anyone) can test their own driving skills. This can be done in private though a partner is needed. The program is titled Roadwise Review, and can be ordered on-line or you could call your AAA office.
The company also has a series of booklets: Straight Talk for Mature Drivers. The series includes, among others, “Meeting the Challenge,” which talks about ways to compensate for the effects of aging on driving, and “A Flexibility Fitness Training Package,” suggesting exercises that can help driving performance. AAA maintains that they want to help seniors drive as long as it’s safe.
Sometimes, this approach can help extend driving time. If not, it may help convince the senior that it’s time to quit. Finally, many hospitals and clinics have programs where they will do a physical and psychological exam and then have the senior take a trained staff member for a drive. They set up the driving to be as close to the experience the senior would have when driving around his or her neighborhood or town. If the person is from a small town, they would be taken to a quiet neighborhood. If they drive in traffic, they would be asked to take the trainer into traffic. Check with your local hospital to see if they have such a program.
Your state's Department of Motor Vehicles may be able to help, as well. The bottom line is safety for the senior and for others on the road. If you are having trouble convincing a senior to give up the keys, try some of these resources. The process may not be smooth, but it's often necessary.