Monday, March 27, 2017

Who is Driving the Car...Keeping Your "Sandwich" Safe

Some of the most challenging situations you and I will ever experience center around a car. I still remember begging my parents to let me drive before my 16th birthday.  Several other kids my age had been given the keys to their parents' cars well before they were of legal age to drive. One of my cousins and a great-niece already had brand new cars in the garage several months before their 16th birthday...ready for them to drive on their big day.  But my parents would not relent...and I was not allowed to make a solo drive until the morning of my 16th birthday.

Me atop my Grand-dad's car in a high school parade - 1972.
I think the car was a Plymouth Sebring!
Conversely, I remember the ordeal that arose when my mother had to tell my Grand-dad (her dad) that he could no longer drive.  He was not having it!  My grandmother stopped driving fairly early, because she was given a diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease, and she somewhat reluctantly accepted the fact that it was deemed unsafe for her to drive. But my poor grandfather felt that my mother and dad were totally emasculating him by suggesting that he put down his car keys.  

Never mind that Grand-dad could not see well enough to discern a raw onion from potatoes on the dinner table...or that he could not hear most of what was said in normal conversation.  Forget the fact that Grand-dad passed someone on the highway north of town one night and took off this person's side mirror - and never knew it!  My Grand-dad still thought he needed to be able to drive...if for no other reason than to be able to transport my grandmother wherever she wished to go. The only way Mother convinced Grand-dad to give up his car is by telling him that a beloved grandson who lived in Texas needed the vehicle.  If Brent needed his car, Grand-dad was glad to let him have it.  

I am quite certain that on some level, my grandfather realized that he was being handed an "out"...but he was allowed to "save face" somewhat.  He wasn't really giving up driving as much as he was helping out his grandson by providing him with a car.  And that was that...except that more than ever, my mother and I - and other family members - were called upon for rides to everything from church to doctor appointments to shopping trips, and more.  And we made this "taxi service" work.

My great-Aunt Altha simply declared at some point that she was finished driving. She called her grandson and told him to sell her car...which he did.  Nothing else was said...there was no remorse.  My aunt fully realized that the time had come to put away her car keys and let someone else do the driving. If only it were always that easy!

1967 Chevy Impala similar to the one my grandmother owned. 
Photo from
When my dad's mother - my Mam-ma Polly - began to have some little "fender benders" at age 95, we began to hint that the car should probably go.  However, the decision was pretty much hers. And one day, she asked my sister and brother-in-law if they would help her sell her 1967 Chevy Impala - a "mountain-green" tank with a white hard top (similar to the one pictured, but I think hers was four-door).  I believe the buyer paid $500...but the bigger payoff was that the car was not available...and the temptation to drive it was removed.

My Grand-dad and my Mam-ma Polly both lamented frequently that they had to depend on others for rides. They really missed their cars. I think my maternal grandmother and great-aunt enjoyed being chauffeured around - especially my grandmother.  It was not always convenient to shuttle them here and there...and we couldn't always drop everything and go at the very minute that they called and wanted a ride. For my grandmother, especially, planning ahead was a real problem - and apparently not in her vocabulary. But in the end, we made it work as best we could for everyone...and hopefully, we kept the roads safer for others.

December 21, 2015, a 90-year-old man over-corrected on the highway just outside our community and crossed the center line, hitting my brother-in-law, Bruce, and his wife head-on.  The man died at the hospital an hour or so later.  Bruce endured four bowel-resection surgeries in 3 days due to internal injuries from his seat belt...and on New Year's Eve, he succumbed to a heart attack and died. This caused all of us to begin to take a hard look at the driving habits of my mother-in-law, who was then 89. 

We talked about the car - and no longer driving...and Grandma E would say, "I want to drive until I am 90."  Greg agreed to long as nothing changed. She rarely drove anywhere...Walmart, the beauty shop, or maybe to church.  Once in awhile, she would venture across town to visit us.  Still, we worried about her reflexes...and how she might react to other drivers.  As the months ticked by and we neared her June birthday, Greg and his older brother began to discuss what to do about her car.

Just as had happened with my cousin and my grandfather, our great-nephew was on the hunt for a good "commuter car" to drive to work each day in Nashville, Tennessee. The 2007 Ford Fusion that Grandma E was driving had right at 15,000 miles and looked like brand new.  Her sons began to suggest that Grandma E give the car to her grandson.  And she agreed to do this. 

I will tell you, the day that our great-nephew and his family drove away from Grandma E's in the little white car was bittersweet.  I knew it signaled a shift in the family dynamic...and a dependency upon us for her trips - to anywhere! But we have managed pretty well, so far.  The biggest issue we have had is getting Grandma to remember to plan ahead...and on some levels, that's just not gonna happen!  So when I picked her up one morning last week to go to our Aquatic Center for a swim, she said, "I've called in a prescription refill at the pharmacy, and it will be ready later today."  Luckily, it was ready by the time we finished our swim, and we were able to stop and pick it up on the way home.

Other times, she has forgotten to tell us ahead of time about an appointment - or she hasn't remembered that she is running low on milk and other staples.  So Greg has had to adjust his schedule to accommodate an extra "run" to the store - or to her house to pick her up or deliver her somewhere.  But the payoff is that we know that she is not driving herself.

We recently got rid of the last two "5-way harness" car safety seats that we had for Nathan and Zola and promoted them to high-back booster seats like their brother, Timothy, uses. These seats utilize the car's seat belt to strap the child in securely, and we are still teaching "the littles" to fasten their own latches.  But once that is accomplished, the wrestling of those straps from the other car seats will be a distant memory in the rear-view mirror!  These seats should serve the children for the rest of the time they need a child safety switching them out was monumental in our world!

And yes, some days, we have to do some strategic planning...who needs to be delivered where - and when - and where we will all sit. Right now, our Chevy Tahoe has ample seating for us, Grandma E, and the three children - with a little room to spare.  And thankfully, Grandma E is able to pull herself up into vehicle...something my Mam-ma Polly was always able to do, also.  Otherwise, we would have had another adjustment to make!

I share all of this to say that getting everyone safely from Point A to Point B can be a challenge.  And getting your seniors to stop driving when it's time may be one of the biggest issues you will face in managing their care.  There is a lot to consider as you make this change.  I know people in their 90s who are still driving and doing a fairly good job of it...and I know people in their 70s (like my maternal grandparents) who were already past the time when they could safely maneuver a motor vehicle.  

Each person and situation is different. I know more than one caregiver or guardian who has hidden his/her parent's car keys. I know children who have called the local police and BEGGED them to "make Mom or Dad quit driving"  - and they cannot do this.  Unless your loved one is involved in an accident or fails a driving test, the police are powerless to say, "You have to stop driving" just because this person is advanced in age.  In fact, the police chief in our town called a friend of mine and said, "You need to get your mother to stop driving."  But HE (the police chief) was legally unable to do anything to dissuade her.

You must be prepared for what happens after the car is gone.  My mother-in-law and Mam-ma Polly were both in the habit of running to the store for just one or two items.  So when they needed Jello...or ran out of salt...they hoped in their car and drove to Walmart or a nearby grocery store and got these things.  If they got a hankering for a hamburger at 5:00 p.m., they got in their car and drove to Sonic®, Burger King® or McDonalds® and ordered whatever they pleased.  Your senior will have a major period of adjustment as he/she realizes that the vehicle really is no longer available for these spontaneous trips.

You must also be prepared to do more shuttles, and some serious scheduling may have to take place.  When I was driving my grandmother, it worked best for me to do all of her errands on one day (as much as possible). For us, this was Friday afternoon.  I took her to the beauty shop, and while she was there, I went to the pharmacy and got her medicine and handled any other errands she had on the list.  Most of the time, she gave me her grocery list, and I bought the items while she got her hair done. Then when we got home, I unloaded everything for her and helped her put it away. 

Schedules are good, but there will be unexpected doctor appointments, times that your loved one wants to visit a friend or attend a party or other function, and more.  I could not persuade my grandmother to ride the church bus that would have gladly picked her up and delivered her back to her home.  She said she didn't want to wait - or to be the last one returned home.  Well, somebody has to be first and last!  Thankfully, a fellow church member lived nearby and picked her up most days - and sometimes my mother and her husband were in town and were able to take Mam-ma to church.  But my point is that there will be some necessary schedule adjustments for your loved one - AND for YOU!

The other thing you have to figure out is what to do with the car. Sometimes this works out fairly easily...and other times, it's a real bone of contention.  People are attached to their vehicles...and worries that they won't bring a decent price can be a concern for an elderly person, in particular. Some will want to keep the car in the carport or garage with the promise that "I won't drive it."  That is probably not a good idea...and that promise will end up being broken in an "emergency."  I know people who are in an Assisted Living Facility and have a car sitting in the parking lot, just because it makes them feel good to know it's there!  I also know one person whose children disconnected the spark plug, just in case he tried to take off in said vehicle!  My best advice is to figure out a way to get rid of the car - even if you have to be pretty creative in doing so. Remove any and all temptation  - and possibility - for the senior to drive.

In her book, When Heads and Hearts Collide, my mother talks about a conversation she had with my grandmother, in which Grandmother told Mother, "I don't want you to be my Mother!"  Believe me, that was not a role Mother relished.  But just as our parents told us when we could begin to drive - and were most likely heavily involved in helping us acquire our first car - or maybe YOU have done this for your own teenagers...many of us will come to a point where we have to "parent" our parents or grandparents - and help them make some life-changing decisions about driving.

At the end of the day, the goal is to keep our loved ones - and all others on the roadways - safe from an injury...or worse.  There may be some heated discussions and a few tense moments in the journey, but this is generally a necessary challenge that must be addressed.  A fender-bender and dealing with insurance agents, injured parties and more can be a frustrating experience...but a more serious accident could be life-changing.  The question of who is driving the car is an important one to answer...and worth any hassle and heartache on the front end.

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