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As they got old, Bill and Betty Lamb learned to make compromises so they could, for a time, continue on as if advancing age had no effect. He still drove on their beloved afternoon rambles, but he was no longer the only pilot, determinedly in charge and certain of his way. His wife kept track of where they were, telling him to turn here or there.
He was a "man you could have dropped from a helicopter anywhere and he'd have found his way home," his daughter, Sandra Lamb, says. Except he was getting lost in familiar places near his Denver home. And when it got bad enough, she could no longer avoid the topic she'd long dreaded: It was time, she told her 82-year-old dad, to give up his car keys. It wasn't safe for him or for others on the road.
"It was painful to see his reaction. I felt so sorry for him." And for herself, too. He didn't speak to her for almost two years. One day, living in Michigan, she got a panicked call from her mom. He'd found a spare set of keys, she said, and was loading the car with nonsensical items, getting ready to "drive home."
She told her to call the police. Faced with their authority, he turned the keys over without a battle. He was done with driving, though he continued to fume.
Driving may represent identity, independence and more to seniors. Giving up driving is an unwelcome rite of passage among the elderly, complicated by the fact that people age out of safe driving unpredictably. Some at 85 are well enough to continue without much problem, though they may prefer to stay in familiar territory or on slower streets. But dementia, macular degeneration and other maladies common in old age can make driving a very hazardous pursuit for others, at even younger ages.
It's a potentially deadly dilemma for families. Stacey Hilton of Senior Helpers, an in-home senior care company, does a sobering recap: By 2030, 70 million-plus Americans will be at least 65, and more than 90 percent of them will be licensed to drive. Some will no longer be capable of doing so safely. She points to four accidents in March alone. In Massachusetts, an 89-year-old man who hadn't renewed his license for 25 years is charged after killing a pedestrian. In California, a woman, 81, accidentally hits the gas and kills another driver and a pedestrian. Elsewhere in the state, a man, 85, hits a tree and dies. In Ohio, a woman, 69, goes the wrong way on the freeway and kills three college students and herself, and injures others.
Time to talk
But the "give me the keys" talk requires care, say both experts and adult children who've done it. It's a conversation so fraught with land mines that AARP and the Hartford and MIT AgeLab created a free online course explaining the emotional connections to driving and offering suggestions. It's called "We Need to Talk."
Hartford's survey notes that adults in their 40s are the most apt to be concerned about an older family member's ability to drive, but a third of those who are worried have not yet broached the subject with the older driver. They say they're worried the driver will react badly, they don't know what to say and they haven't figured out transportation alternatives.
But before you rush to take away the keys simply because someone's old, consider this tale from Bonnie Russell of Asheville, N.C. "My father is 89. Still driving. In fact, two years ago his defensive driving skills and fast reflexes (he's an ex-pilot) saved us both from a bad accident after a woman cut in front of us on the freeway and then slammed on her brakes." But she's seen the other side, too. When she worked for a police department, she says, people occasionally asked them to take away their parents' car keys. "The least painful way is to work out a deal with DMV to send out a notice for a driver's license re-test — which they will fail. Some states will do so immediately. Others wait until the renewal date."
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