If you aren’t “parenting” your parents now, the odds are you will be in the future. One of the hardest duties is “taking away their independence” when it is no longer safe for them to be driving a car.
Sometimes they refuse to give up driving. This is a serious problem that cannot be overlooked because seniors have a four times higher accident rate. It is also one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome because elders, like all of us, don’t want to give up the freedom of driving.
So that you are better prepared for dealing with your elderly loved one, let me tell you what I went through with my very “challenging” 85-year-old father. He loved to drive, but fortunately he had given it up after his foot “slipped” off the brake, onto the gas, taking us on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in the carport, nearly crashing into my mother’s pride and joy Mustang. Then, one day the car keys were mysteriously missing and we were sure that he had them. My parents’ live-in caregiver, Ariana, was trapped, unable to move her car from behind his, because she knew he’d try to drive if he got the chance. He called me, screaming and swearing, for accusing him of taking them.
“Dad, I’m sorry you can’t drive anymore. I know how much you love driving but we can’t risk an accident. What if you hurt someone? Wouldn’t you feel just awful? Please give Ariana the car keys.”
“I don’t know where the keys are – I swear to God.”
“If you won’t give Ariana the keys on your own, you’re forcing me to have to get them away from you forcefully. You don’t want to go through that do you?” He went into a rambling rage calling me every nasty name he could think of.
I told Ariana to wait until he went to sleep and then she could probably find the keys. She was up all night trying to find them and then called me exasperated when nothing turned up. I said, “Did you check inside his shoes?”
“Jacqueline, I swear to you, I have looked absolutely everywhere and they are not here,” she said in total exhaustion.
“They’re on his body then, I’m sure of it. Did you check inside little Napoleon’s jacket? He kept his hand in there for a reason.”
“Yes, I patted him down and they weren’t in his pockets. I can’t imagine what he did with them.” Hmmm, tricky little dictator.
Ariana called back later with a brilliant plan. “Once I finally get the car keys away from him, I’ll get a copy made, and then I’ll go buy “The Club”, and put that on his steering wheel. That way he can keep his darn keys and he still won’t be able to go anywhere.”
“Wow, I’m ashamed I didn’t think of that myself, Ms. Einstein-ela. Maybe try secretly asking Mom where he hid them.”
Ariana tried to get Mom to rat on Dad, and for the first time ever Mom was mean to Ariana. “He’s a good driver and that’s our car and you can’t have it, and you can’t have my dining-room set either!” Alll-righty then.
Ariana called again, “Jacqueline, I found the baby monitor covered with a blanket so I couldn’t hear them last night. It appears he’s brainwashed her all night because now, she sounds just like him! You won’t believe the words coming out of your mother. Here, you try to talk to her.”
“Hi, Mom. You know, Dad’s eyes aren’t good enough to drive anymore. The doctor said he has macular degeneration. You don’t want him to accidentally hurt someone do you?”
“No, of course not, honey, but Dad’s never had an accident and that’s our car and he’s a good driver and I can drive too. And that’s my Mustang out there and I can still drive her if I want. And that’s my dining-room set and nobody’s gettin’ it!” Alllll-righty-then again.
The next morning, Ariana wheeled Mom to the kitchen table and waited for Dad to get up. All of a sudden she heard, “clink, clink, clink” as he shuffled to the table. “Jaaake, what’s that clinking noise I hear?”
“I don’t hear nothin’.” Dad refused to wear his hearing aid, so, he really didn’t hear nothin’.
“Jake, lift up your pant leg, and I mean it… on the double!” He swore a blue streak but finally complied, and there, masking-taped to his calf, were the car keys! He refused to hand them over for hours but when Ariana refused to talk to him, he finally gave them up.
The next day he called me practically crying, “I know I can still drive. My license is still good for two more years. Why are you doing this to me?”
“Oh, Dad, tell you what – Ariana will take you to the DMV and you can take the eye test. If you pass it you can drive home, no questions asked, okay?”
I had Ariana talk to the supervisor at the DMV and if by some fluke Mr. Magoo passed the eye test, they’d make him take the written test too. She had it all lined up and they were ready to walk out the door when suddenly he had a change of heart.
“Awhhh, never mind, you just take us wherever we want to go, Ariana. I don’t really feel like driving anymore.”
Mom’s jaw dropped open as she looked at Ariana – completely flabbergasted. She looked back at Dad with the sternest evil eye, shook her furious finger at him and yelled, “Well… then we don’t want to hear another damn word about it, honey, and I mean it now–not another word–TISK!”
And the moral of the story is: You don’t have to be the bad guy. Have the doctor check their eyes and reflexes. If they shouldn’t be driving anymore, confidentially ask the physician for a letter that states that. Contact the DMV, ask for a supervisor and explain the situation. Tell your loved one that they have to go to the DMV for a “routine” eye exam. If the DMV ends up taking the license away, you get to be sympathetic, saying how sorry you are that this has happened. This way, you’re not the horrible person who took their last pleasure in life away. Assure them you will arrange for alternative transportation (inexpensive transportation specifically for seniors is available in many areas) so your loved one does not feel trapped at home. Get the car keys away from them and if you still fear that they may try to drive, put “The Club” on the steering wheel. You’ll sleep a lot better at night!
This article is adapted from material in “Elder Rage or, Take My Father…Please!: How To Survive Caring For Aging Parents” by Jacqueline Marcell (Impressive Press, 2001).