Cecilia Capuzzi Simon

Cecilia Capuzzi Simon

Who's Caring for Mom?

Car Talk: Why Your Aging Parent Can't Hand Over the Keys

Imagine how it feels to have your "Freedom" taken away.

Posted Jul 25, 2008

Fortunately, my mother has a sense of humor. Some of the time. She gamely modeled a set of googly eyes we gave her as a gag gift last Christmas to help make light of her losing her driver's license a few months before because of poor vision. She even laughed a little. But she wasn't laughing when it happened. She still isn't.

But, the way I see it, she lost her license not a moment too soon. And, fortunately, my family and I were spared the usually unpleasant, emotional, relationship-straining and often prolonged process many adult children go through when trying to convince aging parents that it's time to hang up the car keys.

When to Stop
For months we had been on my mother to think about cutting back her driving or to give it up altogether. Her eyesight was in decline after a blood vessel broke in one eye; the other eye was in the early stages of macular degeneration. An arthritic condition caused chronic pain that was affecting her agility and reflexes. Her car began routinely returning with new sets of dings and scratches.

To her credit, she had already cut back on night-time driving, recognizing that she couldn't see as well in the dark. But often she was the designated driver when going out to dinner with girlfriends, and if the evening ran past dusk, well, they had to get home somehow, didn't they?

"I'm a good driver!" she'd protest when we raised the issue with her. She was a good driver--and she had done a lot of it through the years. Widowed at 48, she went back to work and drove a 90-minute round-trip commute each day for 15 years. On weekends she'd pick up and drive home her own mother, who lived with us Fridays through Sundays--another 90-minute round trip. She'd never had a major accident in 66 years of driving.

If you ask my mother why her car is so important to her, she won't hesitate in her reply: "It is my Freedom!" she says. I'd venture that most people of her generation (probably mine and my children's, too) would think the same.

Imagine, then, how it feels to have your "Freedom" taken away, and you might begin to understand why raising the issue of driving--or not driving--with your parents is so loaded.

Driving is the ultimate symbol of self-sufficiency, independence, personal power--and identity. Remember when you first got your license? I remember--and there are only several other things in life (sex, falling in love, having children)--that match the thrill of that first ride behind the steering wheel. (I recently let my 15-year-old son drive our car in our driveway--he was literally giddy from the experience.) Losing one's ability to drive is the ultimate reminder that aging takes much away from you, and that more loss will follow.

How to Stop
The Web site Caring.com, which provides advice on how to talk with your parents about driving and, if necessary, getting them to stop (it also has a quiz to help determine whether your parent should stop) sums up this dynamic: "Their careers are behind them, their children are grown, many friends and close relatives are dying of old age, and their health is increasingly fragile. They know it's a matter of time before they lose the ability to live on their own."

For my mother, losing her license was the ultimate indignity--even worse than her fall and hip-replacement surgery shortly after that: "I'd suffer all the pain in the world just to have my damn car back!" she told me recently.

My mother had her license taken away suddenly by an insensitive stranger. She'd asked her granddaughter to drive her to a vision center where she could sample magnifying glasses to help her read. A "vision specialist" assisted her, but then directed her to her office, alone, where she tested my mother's vision and then abruptly and coldly told her she was taking her license away.

My mother was horrified. "You can't do that!" my mother protested. She was rightly incensed, I believe, because of the insensitive manner in which this "professional" had blithely cut off her "freedom"--without a sympathetic word or explanation, a call to her doctor, or even a consultation with the granddaughter who my mother had had the good sense to ask for a ride to what became her car-less fate.

I was angered when I heard this story because my mother was treated without care or dignity. But I was also relieved because it removed a danger to her, and it spared me and my brother the battles I'm sure we would have faced in getting her to give up her car.

My mother has made adjustments to her lifestyle and, an objective observer might note, she's done fine without driving herself. She's tapped into a volunteer group at her church--parishioners who will drive senior parishioners wherever they need to go, such as doctor's appointments, social dates, shopping. She has a woman who works for her every day helping with the household and her personal care, who is also available to drive her. She has family members in the area who are generous with their time.

But my mother doesn't really see it. She still harbors hopes (fantasies?) that she will drive again. Before every visit to her ophthalmologist she says to me, "Maybe Dr. Gross will tell me my eyes have improved and I can get my license back."

Staying Sensitive
When she complains about not being able to drive, I ask her, "Where do you want to go that you can't go?"

"That's not the point," she'll say. "I just like knowing my car is in the driveway and that I can get into it and drive wherever I want, when I want to."

I can certainly relate to that. Most of us who drive, who grew up in a car culture and who love the road, can understand.

But those of us who love the road also must respect its rules.

Eventually we all have to stop.

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