My wife, Inge, and I will never forget the moment we decided to have “The Talk” with her dad about his driving. One sunny, summer afternoon, we flew into town for a visit, and my father-in-law kindly offered to pick us up at the airport. We headed home—me riding in the front passenger’s seat, and my wife and our 6-year-old son in the back—all of us laughing and chatting away. As we approached an intersection, I noticed my father-in-law seemed oblivious to the red light ahead. My right foot instinctively pressed the floor, as if to hit the brake.
“Um, Opa,” I said in a tone as casual as I could muster. “You know the light up there is red?”
He didn’t say anything. He simply tapped the brake pedal lightly, slowing to about 25 or 30 mph, and barreled into the intersection.
All the happy chatter stopped; I held my breath. After we sailed through—safely, thank goodness—Inge piped up from the backseat. “Vati, did you see that light?”
My father-in-law forced a chuckle, as if to laugh off the whole incident. “Oh, you don’t really have to stop if there’s nobody coming,” he said.
To this day, I don’t know whether he didn’t see the light or whether he ignored it, thinking the rules of the road didn’t apply to him. At the time, both possibilities seemed equally likely. My father-in-law was a big, tough, stubborn guy—a German immigrant, a retired carpenter who could still hammer a tenpenny nail flush into a joist with two or three whacks, right- or left-handed, at the age of 78. (No fancy nail guns for him.)
But now he walked with a slight stoop in his 6-foot-2-inch frame; his voice was softer, less energetic, and his attention flightier. Who knows when he started running red lights? Then and there, Inge and I knew it was time for a serious conversation.
A difficult issue for all
With people over age 65 now constituting the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, more and more families are facing this situation. And no one dreads the talk more than seniors themselves. Many older drivers think of the inability to drive as a problem; they feel anxious about losing the freedom and mobility that go with their car keys. Their adult children probably feel just as uneasy. We certainly did.
As the week wore on, we began to look ahead to the conversation with the same anxiety parents feel when having that other “talk,” the one about where babies come from. In both situations, you know the conversation is important, but you want to put it off as long as possible. We told Inge’s sister Heidi about our red-light scare. Because she lived nearby, she was more familiar with her parents’ everyday routines and confessed she was also concerned.