Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Elderly Driving: How Old is TOO Old?

When my grandfather passed a car and scraped the entire driver's side - and never even knew he touched anything - my mother wrestled with what to do about his driving. Grand-dad was adamant that he could still drive... even though at almost 80, he had lost most of his vision and hearing. Ultimately, the "solution" came in the form of an excuse. A beloved grandson who lived in Texas "needed" a car... and Grand-dad rather reluctantly gave his to him. That was after Mother had tried everything, including hiding his keys or taking them home with her. And for awhile, Mom compromised - Grand-dad could keep the car in the carport... but he was not to drive it! It got to where the easiest way to avoid a conflict was to try and second-guess my grandparents and drive them wherever they needed to go. But as fast as we could think ahead of them, they could outdo us, so that only worked to a point. So the ultimate decision to give away the car was a blessing.

There is no set answer to the question, "How old is too old to drive?" And there is also no set solution to the problem of those elderly drivers who refuse to give up their car or driving it. Believe it or not, some people DO give up their cars voluntarily. My great-aunt decided on her own that she was no longer a good driver, and she called her grandson one day and said, "I want you to sell my car. I'm not driving any more." Oh, that it were always that easy!

My paternal grandmother drove until she was in her early 90's. Mam-ma's life centered around her car. It spelled FREEDOM for her, and she was extremely reluctant to give it up, even after backing out into another car and a few other fender benders. She drove a two-tone Chevy impala (I think it was a 1968 - Army green with a white top) - it was a TANK! So she was not hurt, but she really did a number on the other person's car. In 2003, Mam-ma fell and had to go to the nursing home for about 3 months of rehab. The following year, she fell again and had to return for more rehab. This time, she was so weak and sick that we questioned whether she could even return home, at 91 years of age. Mam-ma did go home, but she realized she was not able to drive any more, and she asked my sister and brother-in-law to sell her car. They did - for $500, and she was thrilled. However, in recent years as her health has improved somewhat, she has commented, "If I just had my car, I could take myself lots of places!" We are thankful the car is gone!

My friend's father drove an old Chevy suburban, and he caused many accidents all over town. Since we live in a rather small community, and everyone knows everyone, most people knew to look out for this man, but there were still some fender-benders and such. So my friend went to the chief of police and asked him if he could talk to her dad about his driving. He told her that her father had passed his driver's test (how that happened, we aren't sure) and there was nothing he could do. Another friend told me that the police chief came to him, friend to friend, and said, "It's time to have the talk with your mother about no longer driving." The man asked the chief to do it for him and was told with a smile, "I'm sorry, but you are on your own with this." So my friend had "the talk" and told his mother she could no longer drive.This has got to be one of the hardest issues we face with our "seniors." The car does spell "freedom" for them... and independence.

My 96-year-old grandmother has a best friend who just turned 90, and she is still driving. She told me recently that she drove several of the little ladies to a friend's house to play dominoes, and she said, "There were five people in my car, and I was the only one without a walker." I asked what she did with the four walkers, and she said, "I just folded them up and put them in my trunk!" When the day comes that HER son has "the talk" with her, I wonder what those other little ladies will do - if they are still alive. This dear soul represents their last vestige of independence from their children and grandchildren - and a ride to many places they want to go.

I take my grandmother to get her hair done each Thursday, and while she is there I buy her groceries and run any other errands she needs. However, she "supplements" these trips with rides to the store with her friend (the 90-year-old). In fact, one Thursday I dropped her off at home and got her settled, and then I went to Wal-Mart to buy my OWN groceries. I looked up and my grandmother was coming toward me, pushing a buggy. She had hitched a ride with her friend, and she was buying "a few things." I am certain I have no idea how many "outings" these ladies make - or where they go - and I pray they do not have an accident and hurt themselves or anyone else.

It seems that quite often, an "incident" spurs the submission of the car keys... as in the case of my Mam-maw and her stint in the nursing home. I know a lady who was driving herself and a friend to the PX at an Air Force base about 65 miles from our home town, and one day she got lost. She didn't have a clue where she was, or how to get home. That was the last time she drove. Sometimes licenses are revoked after accidents. And yes, SOME seniors do just decide to no longer drive.

I've thought about this a lot... what would I do if I was widowed and could not drive myself safely? I have no children, so who would I call? Thankfully I could probably afford to hire someone to drive me... as does my 96-year-old friend, Olive. And I feel certain younger relatives and friends from church would pitch in... but it would be on their timetable and at their convenience, not mine. So I do see how frustrating this is for our seniors... and I try to be as accommodating as I can to my grandmother - and still keep a semblance of a schedule for myself and my household.

I am a firm believer that when we talk about a problem, we should talk about a solution. While there is no cut-and-dried answer to this dilemma, there are some things that could possibly help a bit:

  1. Make arrangements in your calendar to schedule your senior's errands and act as their chauffeur. I do this for my grandmother on Thursdays. Thankfully I can make this weekday work for both of us. When I was still a business owner, it wasn't as easy - and often I had to take a long lunch hour to get this done without eating up my entire Saturday. Some Thursdays, I can accomplish all of the errands and the trip to the beauty shop in a couple of hours. Other times, the day is filled with doctor visits and other stops, but I try to consolidate as much as I can on this one day.

  2. As my Mam-maw ages, she tires more easily, so I have learned to do what I can for her by myself, such as grocery shopping, and trips to the pharmacy and bank. Obviously she has to go along to her doctor visits, but whenever her presence is not required, I gently suggest she let me handle the errand for her while she rests and conserves her energy. This also speeds things up for me, as just getting in and out of the car takes twice as long when she is involved.

  3. If you are completely unable to schedule time to chauffeur your senior, investigate the senior services in your community. Our senior center operates a bus that does door-to-door pickups for trips to shop at Wal-Mart, doctor visits, and lunch at the center. My grandmother's church operates a bus that would pick her up for services and deliver her afterward. (So far, I have not had any luck getting my Mam-maw to use this bus. Her complaint is that she has to accommodate the church bus schedule. My take is - what else does she have to do? So what if she is the first one on and the last one off? Her choice is often to stay home and watch church on television, and that is okay, too. But she does have a choice!)

  4. Consider trading with a friend or relative... one week you take his/her senior and yours - and the next it is his/her turn. At the very least, if someone else is driving your senior quite a few places, offer to buy a tank or two of gas for them!

  5. Don't be timid about asking for help. If you have other family members who can pitch in and act as the "taxi" once in awhile, call on them. It truly does "take a village," and that's just how it is when caring for the elderly.
Nothing about caring for the elderly is simple, or one-size-fits-all. We all have to tailor our care and services to the needs of our loved one or friend. But at the same time, we owe it to ourselves and those in the direct path of a senior driver to try and head off danger at the pass. I often find that creating a space in my calendar for my grandmother's activities can avoid a "head-on collision" of sorts - and all of the time and energy that would come with it. And as is often the case with seniors, the driving challenge just is what it is... and the coping strategies may have to be stronghanded, or at the very least, creative.

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