Taking the keys: When seniors need to stop driving

Published: Sunday, April 22 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

After Ward gave his daughter his car, he downsized his world to the pieces he could reach on bike until little strokes took those wheels away, as well. Then he walked to the store and through his Midvale, Utah, neighborhood. Friends and relatives were happy to help him get where he needed to go.

He died years ago, but Hoyrup thinks about the challenge of age and driving still. She's 72, living on an island that requires a ferry ride. Lately, she finds herself asking a friend to drive sometimes and she no longer drives in the dark. "At some point in time, we will need to move to a place where we're close to stores; right now we live on five acres."

Diane Dennis' dad was sidelined by a massive stroke as he was driving. He managed to reach a gas station where someone called 911. Dennis, a nurse in Portland, Ore., was his designated spokesperson for medical issues. After the hospital, he was sent to a skilled nursing facility. He wanted to be home, wanted his life the way it had been. Dennis worked with the doctor and others to "leave him there long enough to convince him he needed help at home and could not drive any more."

He never forgave her for "interfering with his independence." They were estranged and she kept track of him only through other family members for the rest of his life.

"I chose to make the doctor's office the determining factor for removing my dad's driving privileges," says Pamela Hoffine of Sweet Home, Ore. "It just made it easier to appease my dad because the doctor, of course, is the expert and the ultimate professional in determining the safety and hazard contingencies linked with my father's health."

When Holly Deitz took her dad's car keys away, she also bought an umbrella insurance policy "on the off chance he gets his hands on my mom's keys. My very wise accountant clued me in on this very necessary but completely underutilized insurance product whereby if my father does get behind the wheel and does something horrible, there will be enough "easy money" for an attorney to get his hands on. That way the chance of my parents losing everything is much less," she says.

Years after Bill Lamb died, Betty Lamb was forced to stop driving by macular degeneration. This time, daughter Sandra didn't confront it directly; she let the doctor do it. It was less stressful for the family when he played the heavy, she says, noting that her cousin just disabled her elderly mom's car and then put off the repair until being carless became the norm.

"My advice," says Sandra Lamb, "is if you don't have to be confrontational, it's better. Losing the things you felt you had the skill to do and you have a long track record of doing — well, giving up those things is not easy at all." She arranged lots of rides for her mom. "Her real fear was being isolated. Giving up driving, which gave her a huge amount of independence, was hard." The sting was smaller when she saw she could still go and do and enjoy.

Lundy Wilder's dad was a doctor who had saved well for retirement. When it because obvious he and his wife shouldn't be driving, their four kids formed a united front to stress that if something bad happened while driving, they could lose all their savings to a lawsuit. Then they set up an account with an agency that sent a driver out every day. "Daddy complained, as did Momma, but we stuck to our guns," says Wilder, of Gulf Shores, Ala. The solid front helped. They managed that by collaborating by phone, city to city. Her folks weren't pleased, but they "went along with the program."

Ultimately, they became close to the driver, who became their hired caregiver in their final months.

Tips on taking the keys

Have a checkup to see if vision, hearing or a medication accounts for the diminished driving skill. Those may be reversible.

AAA and AARP offer classes for mature drivers to help retrain them to be safe drivers. The National Safety Council offers a safe driving test.

Talk about the possibility they could hurt someone else. Many older adults are more horrified at the thought of hurting someone than they are at the loss of independence.

Suggest taking the driver's test to see if current skills are adequate.

Encourage a parent to talk to his or her physician, other relatives and trusted friends. If that doesn't do it and you're worried, contact the Department of Motor Vehicles in your state. The rules vary, but in some cases a license can be revoked, at least temporarily. Don't forget to replace it with a state identification card.

As a last resort, remove access to the car. That's tougher to do. But sometimes it works.

Make sure they use alternative forms of transportation occasionally before they have to give up the keys, so they're not intimidated or uncomfortable. Point out that it doesn't mean you can't stay in your home as long as there are other transportation choices available. It also helps to live in a neighborhood with sidewalks and with stores and amenities close by.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com Twitter: Loisco

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