CC #305

This material has been developed by and is presented by The Sandwich Generation ®

Conversations with Carol #5
Driving -- When to Stop
By: Carol Abaya, M.A.

I got a frantic call from a Connecticut man.  The police in Florida had just found his father sitting in his car in a ditch, a number of feet off the road.

My father denies he had an accident, the man told me, and he doesn’t know how he got into the ditch.

The son went on to tell me that his father had had numerous fender benders in the last year, and totaled one car.  The father lives in Chicago, the son continued, drove himself down to Florida the previous month, and was talking about driving home alone next month.  The father refused to stop driving.  The man who called me and his sister (who lives near Chicago) did not know what to do.  They are not alone in this dilemma.

This is Carol Abaya.

Yesterday we saw how, what I’ve called, words of wisdom from others can give us insight into our own life.   But there doesn’t seem to be enough words of wisdom when it comes to making that very tough decision -- to STOP driving.

Driving, independence and self-esteem go hand in hand, like a tight glove, inseparable.  So it’s very difficult to stop driving and have to depend on others for basic every day chores.

Today we’ll talk about making that decision -- and in helping an aging parent deal with yet another major loss in life.  How one approaches the problem determines the acceptance level of the elder.  We’ll take a look at how words can help -- or hinder -- the decision making process.

I can remember years ago, when I was very young, how I felt one day when I didn’t have my car sitting outside, waiting patiently for me.  The service man had picked it up at 8 am, and would return it by noon, so I could go to work.

I really had no place to go, but I felt uncomfortable not having it "out there."  I felt trapped,  and at the time,  these words really did go  through my head.

In more recent years I’ve  always ‘needed’ a car ‘out there’ in case there was an emergency with my parents.

Several times snow storms kept me "trapped."  One time, I was housebound for 3 days.  The snow was so deep and heavy that regular snow plows were virtually useless.  I was on pins and needles -- just in case there was an emergency with my parents and I had to rush up to north Jersey.

Now when I have my car serviced, the dealer picks up my car and leaves me his. This way I don’t feel ‘trapped.’

So it is with these thoughts in mind that I understand why drivers - regardless of age -- never want to stop.  It’s a major loss of independence and a dramatic step to having to be dependent on someone else.  What does it mean if a person can’t drive to the store to pick up a newspaper or groceries??  Or can’t get to the weekly card game??  Or to the senior center, the mall or church??  Can any one of us describe these feelings in a positive way?    I doubt it.

One 94-year old man was told by his doctor he shouldn’t drive because of poor vision.  His reaction:   I’ve  been given a life sentence in prison."

Another man said it felt like someone cut off his arms and legs.  And he added that driving  was one of the big last freedoms.

But,  At some point in time, every driver needs to stop driving.  While a key ‘tool’ for independence, a car can also be deadly to both the driver and strangers.  However, the ‘stop’ decision should not be based on age alone.

What family members, especially sandwich generationers, need to understand is that driving a car isn't simply a means of transportation.  It’s life itself, control of one’s life, self-esteem and being a part of the mainstream of society.  It’s a relationship link that is critical to us all.

Just last year, I couldn’t drive myself because of a car accident.  My hands were badly banged up, and I had to depend on others.  I knew it was only temporary.  That I would be able to drive in the near future.  So I could handle it emotionally.  If it were a forever situation, I don’t know how I’d handle it.  It would mean major adjustments that I would not like to have to make.

My mother’s  philosophy was that if she couldn’t drive, she didn’t want to be around any more.  As long as she could drive, she accepted aging pretty well.  In the end,  She had her wish.  She drove the night before her last illness, taking  a neighbor (much younger than herself) and the housekeeper out to dinner.

As she lay in the hospital, the doctor said he could go in and clean out her clogged heart valves.  He told her it was 50-50 chance such a procedure would work.  50-50 odds weren’t good enough.  She wanted a 100% guarantee -- or nothing.-

When an elderly person should no longer drive and won’t give it up voluntarily, family members face  a big dilemma.

Remember the man who called me about his father landing in the ditch in Florida??

I made several suggestions, as the father undoubtedly was very confused -- a very dangerous condition -- and shouldn't be driving.

Hide the keys.   They had.   The son said the father called a locksmith.

Disconnect the battery.  They had.  The father called a mechanic.

Have the insurance company cancel the insurance because of the number of accidents.  Except for the time when the car was totaled, the father never reported the accidents and simply ‘paid off’ the other driver.

Notify the repair services in the area and ask them not to repair the car.  He’d go out and by a new one immediately, the son told me.

What was left?   Not much!! 

So when MUST an adult child really step in and lay down the law??  There’s no clear answer.  But you shouldn’t necessarily wait for a major accident if certain conditions exist.   Performance and ability to drive are the critical elements. 

The guidelines I gave my mother were that she could drive as long as she did not have an accident, did not cause an accident,  and could find her way home.  She didn’t like me even saying this, but I felt I had to set up parameters that she could understand.

There are more definitive guidelines as to when a person should stop -- and when a child should step in. Here are some questions you need to ask.

  • Are there any cognitive impairments -- in other words mental confusion  that could interfere with the driver’s ability to make decisions as he or she drove??

Short term memory and the proper processing of information are the first to go.  So, does the driver really understand the STOP sign and what he has to do?

Does he see and understand the difference between red and green lights?   These sound very basic.  But when short term memory goes, so does the processing of what STOP signs and light colors mean.   So they are very critical elements.

  • Are there any vision deficits??  night blindness??  problems with peripheral vision??  problems with spatial definition and perception.

The glare from on-coming cars at night can be deadly.  Maybe it’s time for your parent to curtail night driving.  I’m still young, but I don’t like driving at night to unfamiliar and new places.  And I find night driving  particularly difficult when it’s raining.

  • Is there impaired contrast sensitivity and decreased visibility?? not only at night, but what about in the day time when it is very sunny??
  • Are any medication being taken that might cause sleepiness and or cognitive impairment?    Many medicines -- both prescription and over the counter -- say you shouldn’t drive.  There are usually alternatives.  So a talk with your parent’s doctor is appropriate.

If any of these elements are present, the subject of stopping driving needs to be aggressively, yet sensitively, addressed.

How do you evaluate these elements?  Again, it’s not easy.  You need to look at a number of things.  And you might have to talk with someone who has been a passenger in the car.   Anyone or a combination of these elements means trouble.

  • your parent  has difficulty following directions
  • he stops abruptly without cause.
  • drifts into another lane
  • does not signal when turning or changing lanes
  • does not check blind spots before changing lanes
  • he fails to obey traffic signs
  • he drives on the wrong side of the road
  • he has difficulty seeing pedestrians and other vehicles.
  • he turns improperly from one lane to the next or going around corners.
  • he ignores or coasts through stop signs

Then there are some intangible elements.  And if present, it’s time to act,  aggressively.

 Does he become increasingly nervous when driving?   Does he complain about tight shoulder muscles?  or hand or arm muscles hurting?

Does he become flustered in traffic or by more aggressive drivers?

Does he drive significantly slower than the posted speed or general speed of other vehicles?

How does he react to emergency situations?

Has he had any accidents - or near ones -- and either denies he had the accident or doesn’t even remember it?

Poor vision and mental confusion are probably the two key reasons a person should stop driving.  The person usually can accept the fact he can’t see as well as he used to.   But when confusion is at stake, it’s much different.

A behavioral science specialist and family counselor developed these communication scenarios for me when I was publishing The Sandwich Generation©™ magazine.   They provide excellent advice as to how to word a conversation with an older person about the need to stop driving.

It may take a number of conversations before anything positive is achieved.  But the important thing is to start a dialogue.

First, there is the ‘demand’ variation of a conversation   --   otherwise known as the ‘how not to do it’ scenario.

YOU:  Dad, you have to stop driving.  It’s getting dangerous.  You could have an accident and we don’t want you or anyone else hurt because you’re behind the wheel."

DAD:   variations of responses

First:  He agrees.  Result:  he stops driving and there are no further problems.

Second;  What, are you crazy?  I drive fine.  Result- big problem.

Third:  What do you mean, give it up?  I’ve driven since I was 16, and let me tell you I’m still a good driver.  It’s those kids driving around that you should be worried about, not me."    Result -- big problem.

YOU:  Come on Dad, be realistic. Look at all those fender benders you’ve been having.  If you don’t quit soon, you’ll lose your license or insurance.

The end result __ Dad may feel attacked;  his needs are ignored and preferences discarded.  At that point, Dad may take on the flexibility of a granite boulder.

Now my friend revises the scene and changes the words used by the daughter. She advises everyone to change the dialogue to meet the specific situation.  But here is the idea.

YOU:  Dad, we’ve talked about this before.  It’s important that, at the least, you cut back on your driving.

DAD:  I’m still a good driver.  I’ve got years of experience to prove it.

YOU:  Dad, do you really believe you’re the same driver you always were?  Remember the fender benders in the past few months?  And I see a rut on the grass next to the driveway.  Don’t these show you that your driving has changed? 

DAD - ignores the facts   and says:   What are you all trying to do -- make an old man out of me?  I’ll show you, if I just can keep on, my driving will improve.  I just need to pay a little more attention to it.

YOU:  I want to be able to understand this.  Are you trying to say that you’ll get your vision back without glasses,  or you’ll get back your fast reflexes if you just keep driving?  Why are you so set on driving, when sometimes you seem fed up with all the traffic and the lousy roads.

Now Dad tells you why it’s so important for him to continue driving.

DAD:  Don’t you understand?  It means I can still get around under my own steam, and not have to depend on you or anyone else.  

And needless to say this is the crux of the matter.

YOU reply:.  I don’t want you to have to depend on me.  But there are ways we can work around that.  We’re not asking you to stop all your driving now.

This may be the first of many discussions.  First objective would be for him to voluntarily reduce the amount of driving he does.  Stay away from busy highways.  Not drive at night.

Asking anyone to give up something he or she values, for whatever the reason, is difficult.

As we’ve seen, how the conversation is worded can help overcome the initial, automatic negative resistance.  Dad might feel a sense of loss, but  has evidence that you’re trying to recognize what driving means to him.  If anything helps ease resistance, it’s the knowledge that the adult child understands the magnitude of the loss from the parent’s point of view.

Now let’s look at another side of the driving coin.

Many women, now in their 70s and 80s, never learned to drive.  Families did not have 2 cars during the depression or World War II.  So when the husband passes on, the woman is "trapped" in her house or apartment.  It’s too late to learn to drive.  But it’s important to have transportation for both needed chores like shopping and going to the doctor, as well as for pleasure and intellectual activities.

Because families are so geographically dispersed, there might not be a family member nearby who can help on a regular basis.  So what’s a person to do?

I was talking about this dilemma with a group of older women who were on a senior bus trip.  What do you do?   I asked.

A number of marvelous suggestions came out -- all were based on a very simple concept -- exchange of services.

"I can babysit"   said one woman.  "I just can’t drive."    So she found someone in the neighborhood who could take her to the supermarket.  And when the mother wants to have a few hours to herself or has chores and doesn’t want to drag the kids, or when the parents want to go to a movie, the older woman babysits.   "I can change diapers better than they can," she smiled.

Other suggestions developed as everyone else got into the conversation.

I have a high school kid who drives me around.  She needs help with her English lessons.  So I help her."

"I sewed new curtains for my friend’s kitchen.  Her friends like them so much, now I take orders.    She laughed as she said, "And I’m 72."

"I cook casseroles and various side dishes," another woman said, explaining she has made friends with a single mother, who works full time.  "I also babysit."

One man piped up.  "I only drive close to home.  So I need someone to take me to the doctor.  I found someone else to help me.  She lives next door, is recently divorced, and can’t balance her check book.  I used to be an accountant, so I help her understand banking, taxes, and so on."

Whether you’re an older widow who never drove or someone who has had to stop driving yourself, the exchange of services concept is marvelous.  Just because you can’t drive, doesn't mean you can’t help others.

In the long run, exchanging services means each person is getting reliable and needed help.    Everyone benefits and is connecting with new people.  For all ages, it means a new network of friends and a better appreciation of what "aging" is and means.

Such exchanges are extremely valuable to the older person as it helps maintain self esteem.  After all, everyone has a need to be needed.

Church groups, the neighborhood itself, the local high school or college, even a local barter clubs, can help people make that new connection and find someone who can drive them to the places they need and want to go to.

So, whatever the situation, there are alternatives that can help ease that emotional transition.  Sometimes you -- as a sandwich generationer   or elder --  just need to be more creative and expansive in your thinking.

It’s a tough scene for both the person who has to curtail or stop driving as well as other family members.  Open dialogue is very important and it  may take time to reach an appropriate decision.  However, if conditions are very serious, you might just have to take the car away.  But don’t feel guilty.  You’re using the "safety" factor that we talked about in our 3rd Visit to arrive at your decision.

As I said earlier, my mother continued to drive until days before she passed on -- but only locally-- within probably a 5-mile radius of her house.  But several years earlier, I had to put a stop to her driving the 50 miles to my house.  She’d complain to friends and family.  "I’d drive down to help her with the magazine,"  she’d tell them. "But Carol won’t let me."

Well, enough on this subject for today.  I’ll say good-bye until our next visit.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about caregiver emotions -- especially the guilt factor.

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