Part 16: Who Drives the Car?

When is it no longer safe for older adults to drive? Perhaps if we lived in a city like New York or Chicago, where there is enough public transportation and taxi cabs for older folks to get around independently without a car, the decision would be fairly easy. However if you live in metro Denver, it is pretty hard to be without wheels, even when living in a retirement community. Yes, our place offers transportation within a ten-mile radius. However, it is very different to sign up to go with a group to the grocery store at 3:30 and return at 4:30 then it is to get into your car to pick up something when you need it. And yes, at my place with a prearranged reservation you can be driven your doctor’s appointment if it is within the ten mile radius and then be picked up. For those that live on their own, being unable to drive anymore becomes even more complicated but manageable.

My friend Joe told me that his 95th birthday was coming up and all his family was coming to celebrate. He also told me that his driver’s license needed renewing and he knew that the family would pressure him to give it up. He lamented, “I want to keep it. Not for major trips—just King Soopers and errands. I can manage that just fine.” I suggested, rightly or wrongly, “Why don’t you go renew your license before they come and then if it is renewed they can’t do anything.” Jake renewed.

When should we give up our car?

I recently got this question from the daughter of a couple that lives at my place. I think she asked me the question because I have known her parents for a long time and I am a retired psychotherapist.

“Mom has been the driver. Dad was agreeable. Now we’re concerned about mom’s driving. She has no idea how limited she is and neither does dad. They’re in their middle seventies and that’s not that old. My sister and I have been trying to hang around so if they need to go some place one of us can drive them.” Alice added, “Yesterday I took her to renew her driver’s license and she couldn’t even tell them her Social Security number. She flunked the whole procedure so they are taking her license away. I am not even sure she understood that. It worries me that dad will want to drive and we haven’t let him drive for five years. How am I going to take their keys away?” Alice tearfully asks me.

Of the many decisions adult children need to make for or with their aging parents the keys to the car may be one of the hardest. I am older than these friends and still driving. I consider myself cautious and careful and avoid driving at high-risk times. I think occasionally that when my visiting adult children drive with me, they are secretly evaluating my ability. Most of the time I ask them to be the driver when we are together. Will a time come when I am not a safe driver and don’t know it?

Everyone’s story is different. Blanche was happy to stop driving when she retired. Her husband, an active outgoing man, had given up driving 15 years earlier. He had Macular Degeneration, a condition that seriously lessens one’s ability to see. So for 15 years Blanche was the driver for both of them, with her husband Evan, even with his diminished vision, guiding them because of his accurate sense of direction. They also began taking public transportation or getting rides with others whenever possible because driving wasn’t Blanches favorite activity. When Blanch retired and didn’t need to drive to work, she was delighted to give the car to her daughter. Blanche told me, “Once I stopped working I didn’t miss driving one bit.” It would be nice if more people felt this way.

Two women I talked with told me that they are old, over 90, and don’t drive but still keep their cars because they just don’t want to give them up. Howard, one of the residents at my place has neuropathy, a numbness in his feet which makes it difficult for him to walk and particularly hard to drive. He doesn’t have enough foot feeling to manage the pedals in his car. It was very sad for him to quit driving but he knew he had to and gave his car to his sixteen-year-old new driver grandson.

A rather unpleasant story circulated around here about a woman who went out of town to a wedding and while she was away her son stole her car. It was his view that she wasn’t capable of driving and her feeling that she was. That’s when it becomes tough. It happened to a my friend of mine. He and his wife moved to assisted living because of his wife’s failing health and his family took his car keys away. He was fighting mad and with legal help got his keys back. He died several weeks later, so it appears that his family may have known what they were doing.

Marcia is legally blind and cannot drive but keeps her car for visitors to drive her around. That’s a nice plan. And then there is a man I heard about who was ill; his kids took his car, he got well, well enough to drive, but now doesn’t have his car. He doesn’t want to inconvenience his family by taking the car back and he doesn’t want to spend the money to buy a new one. Quite a dilemma. According to him, “I gave in too soon.”

Ruth feels she is being realist. She hardly drives; just local trips to King Soopers and Walgreens. Anything outside the immediate area, she gets a ride from one of the residence drivers or her son picks her up or she just doesn’t go.

There was no one I talked with who could help me answer the daughter’s question to me about how to take her parents’ car keys away. In my view, if the kids are sure and have evidence to support no driving, as they do in the case of their mother, they must make sure their mother does not drive. Their father, who has not driven in five years, sounds as though he shouldn’t be driving but there is no proof. I would suggest the kids consider him unable to drive just from lack of recent experience. I strongly doubt if he would argue. And the next question, of course, is how the kids actually take the keys away. Confronting parents with unpleasant orders is hard. Certainly the two examples I quoted here of taking the keys away were problematic. However if it is a realistic matter of safety, it has to be done.

There is help available

There are professionals who can help the family with this very stressful decision. I recently took the AARP Driver Safety course and learned about the help that is available. The driver or a friend or a family member needs to arrange for a formal assessment by an occupational therapist who  is a trained driver rehabilitation specialist.  These specialists are usually associated with a hospital. I suggest you search online or call the State Department of Motor Vehicles and ask for a referral to a hospital with a driver rehab specialist. I would also urge all of my age mates to take the four-hour AARP course online or attend a class. I found the course relevant and informative and it also can be used to reduce the cost of your insurance.

Often the family doctor can be helpful. Perhaps at the next medical appointment a family member can join the patient in a discussion of driving with the doctor. Or the family may want to discuss this alone with their parent’s doctor to develop a strategy. However if the older driver refuses all help and his kids see that he or she is driving unsafely, they need to bite the bullet and arbitrarily take the keys. Hopefully this choice will seldom be necessary. In some cases as hard as it will be, you will just have to say no. That is what I am recommending to the family I am concerned about: Yes, your parents may be angry; yes this may be the first time you have arbitrarily told them what to do, but you must make sure they do not drive, as they are a risk to themselves and others.

This whole issue of when we older folks should stop driving is fraught with complications. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently released research stating that the highest fatal crash rates are teenagers and those 75 and older. The rates of the 65-70 year olds are similar to middle-age drivers. Certainly the new model cars with technology to make driving easier and safer are a plus for older drivers. However the Safety Administration emphatically alerts us that we need to remember modern technology is meant to aid driving and not replace the driver. There is no substitute for an attentive driver.

This post was written by Margery Fridstein, an author and retired psychotherapist who lives in a CCRC outside of Denver, CO. She is chronicling her experience in the monthly series, “The Last Stop With Margery Fridstein.”