TAKING AWAY THE KEYS
Short of a magic carpet, I can’t think of a better transportation system than having a chauffeur. Someone at my beck and call whose job it is to drive me to and from work, the movies, and the grocery-store door.
Better yet, someone to go shopping for me. I wonder if I will still like this idea when (and if) it becomes necessary for me to give up my driving privileges. Even if I do, I’m not rich enough to have a chauffeur, so my magic carpet will be a taxi, the bus, or my son. Even worse, I’ll have to adjust my needs to meet the bus or my son’s schedule and I will have to learn to ask for his help. If I am really lucky, I will realize that I’m no longer a safe driver before he does and he takes away my car keys.
Notice I didn’t say no longer able to drive or too old to drive. There is a difference and you need to check your words as you think about your parents’ driving abilities and how to talk to them about it.
However, there are good reasons to take away the keys, and it is so much better to stop driving before it’s too late. That is, before your dad has an accident or gets lost navigating neighborhood streets. If necessary, ask your parents if they would prefer to be in court and have the police take away their driving privileges.
Reasons to Stop Driving
Vision problems, anxiety, and mental confusion happen at all ages but increase with age. Driving is a demanding, mentally exhausting task.
Most of us have had that mysterious experience when you arrive at a familiar intersection and can’t figure out where you are or how you got there. That sense of disorientation can be alarming to an older person. In the effort to defend his skills, your dad may forget that the slightest variation can confuse the most experienced driver.
However, there is enough scientific evidence regarding the effect of age on reflex time and age-related accident statistics to convince the most stubborn diehard to wake up and smell the coffee while he still can.
There are also financial reasons to stop driving. Auto insurance is expensive and increases with age. In addition to the cost of gas, the car may no longer be safe, and fixing it may cost more than it’s worth.
Your mom may say she only uses the car to drive to the shopping center but chances are the shopping center is on Main Street or on a highway where there is heavy traffic. She might say she only drives in the morning when she’s feeling her best. You can point out that early morning is rush-hour traffic time. If your dad says he only drives in the neighborhood, ask how he would feel if he hit a neighbor.
Testing Driving Skills
Vision plays a major role in driving and there are many reasons for getting a vision test. However, unless your parent is required to take the driving part of the license test, there isn’t an objective way to evaluate his or her performance behind the steering wheel.
AARP and local hospitals offer special classes for seniors. The classes review the rules of the road and special situations seniors should be aware of. Some insurance companies give discounts to seniors who take these classes. In most states, seniors can check their mental skills by taking the written half of the driver’s license test.
Driving and Self-Esteem
Cars play many roles in American culture: They are important symbols for status and independence. For some seniors, the car represents their last shred of dignity and their last semblance of independence. Your parent may not be comfortable telling friends they no longer drive. It may make him or her feel like a second-class citizen.
One way to address these concerns is to keep it a secret. Your parent does not have to tell anyone they no longer drive. The important thing is that they arrive at their destination—nobody needs to know how they got there. It may take a while to convince your dad that driving is not the total source of his self-confidence or that people will see him differently unless he invites them to. Independence is a strong American value, but so is self-awareness. People are attracted to positive energy; those of us who use our problem-solving skills to survive.
Unless your loved one offers to stop driving himself, talking to him or her will be difficult. Diplomacy and tact are useful in a situation like this. Perhaps you can approach Mom or Dad with a subtle work-around such as “You are so busy with all your projects, maybe I can do your shopping when I’m at the store,” or “You’ve done so much today, may I drive you to the theater?” or “It’s so hard to find parking, let’s ride together.”
Finding Somebody Else to Take Away the Keys
Your mom and dad probably taught you to drive, and they had the power to take the keys away from when you were in trouble. If role reversal is an issue, it might be easier for everyone if you to turn to a third party to talk to your mom or dad.
The family doctor or your minister may be able to help. The insurance agent, the mechanic, your best friend’s mother, the next-door neighbor, or your cousin the lawyer might be good choices. Make a list of candidates and think it through. You will still be part of the discussion so be sure you feel comfortable with the person you select.
Before the "Conversation”
You and your parent will feel better if you have researched transportation alternatives to present when you talk about giving up the car. Be realistic: If your parents never used public transportation, they are not likely to start doing it now. Private transportation is expensive, but the money saved by giving up the car will go a long way toward financing it. A cell phone can enhance independence. Cell phones have replaced pay phones in many public places and they make it easy for your loved one to call a taxi when your parent is ready to leave the grocery store. You may (if you have the financial means) offer to pay for your parent’s taxi fare, which can reduce the stress of prearranged pick-ups.
Car Pooling and Transportation Services
In my city, the Department on Aging, some churches, and most hospitals offer transportation services for seniors and the handicapped. Some shopping centers also have buses that will pick up seniors for free, drive them to the mall, and then home. The Department on Aging and the Taxi Commission sell senior discount coupons for taxicabs. There are limo services and businesses that provide drivers who use your car or bring their own. Often these drivers will escort your parent to appointments and accompany them on errands.
Some of my friends got together and formed a car pool to chauffer their parents. Every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoon a different driver is available. The car pool goes to different parts of town each day so riders can plan their errands and make appointments accordingly. The prearranged schedule makes it easier for drivers and riders and is a semi-social event for all.
So What About Those Keys?
It’s terrific if you can give the car to a grandchild or a family friend. Many charities accept cars as tax-deductible gifts. Working with your parent to select the recipient can have a positive effect on this process. But if the car is going to sit outside the house, it is best to take the keys with you. Leaving them in the house is an invitation to starting the whole discussion again. Hiding them is fruitless; your dad is going to be home alone day in and day out without anything to distract him from the search. I guarantee he’ll find them. Best to get those keys out of the house—as long as they’re not in the car!