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Taking the keys away from an elderly parent

Senior husband giving car keys to wife Photo by

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.

Smiling senior 80s man relaxing on sofa, talking to grown up daughter in living room. Happy different generations family enjoying drinking morning coffee with pleasant conversation together indoors.
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We mustered the courage at dinner one evening. “Vati, do you still feel comfortable driving all the time?” Inge began. “I mean, there’s a lot more traffic nowadays. And we’re a little worried about your safety. We don’t want you to get into a crash or anything.”

She never mentioned the red light, but we all sensed the elephant in the dining room just as surely as we could smell the roast pork and sauerkraut on the table.

“Oh, I’m fine,” he replied with a smile. “And what should I do? Take the bus?”

“Well, you could,” Inge said gently. “Or Heidi could take Mutti shopping on Fridays and you to doctor’s appointments. And we’ll be moving back here soon, so we could drive, too. It really wouldn’t be a problem.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” he said. “We’re fine.”

The accident

But clearly he wasn’t. A couple of months later, Inge and I did move back to the area where we had both grown up, something we’d been planning for a long time. We kept up the steady, subtle pressure by offering to drive on errands and showing up on Fridays for my mother-in-law’s weekly grocery-shopping excursions. But my father-in-law continued to drive whenever we weren’t around, and he never asked for help—or thought he needed it. Not until the accident, that is.

Luckily, it was relatively minor. While backing out of his driveway, he eased smack into the path of a passing car. The rear quarter panel of his car got pretty dinged up, and the other car’s front corner was smashed. But the only serious injury was to my father-in-law’s pride.

Like many older couples, my in-laws had developed a kind of symbiotic behind-the-wheel relationship as they had aged together. As a passenger, my mother-in-law served as an extra set of eyes for her husband, calling his attention to things he might have missed otherwise. And since they both came from that generation in which women just didn’t drive (particularly in the old country), she was as much a codependent as a copilot in their car-centric, suburban American retirement.

So, when my father-in-law backed into the path of that car, he blamed her. “She should tell me when somebody’s coming,” he told us. Hearing this explanation, we could only shake our heads and exchange rueful smiles.

Nevertheless, the collision shook my father-in-law’s confidence. You could say it scared him straight. Besides the insurance implications of an accident in which he was clearly at fault, he faced the prospect of being carless while his was at the body shop. We adult kids stepped up our efforts then, coordinating our schedules so that somebody would always show up for shopping trips, doctors’ appointments, and social outings. 

Missing keys

And when his car eventually came back repaired (you can bet we took our sweet time picking it up), we would chauffeur him in it but regularly “forget” to leave the keys afterward; we’d just go home with them in our pocket or purse. My father-in-law never protested or complained about the missing keys. He never announced his retirement from driving. He just tacitly resigned from it.

Now, years later, I look back on my father-in-law’s retirement from driving with a mixture of regret and gratitude. Certainly, I regret our lack of awareness, our lack of communication, and, most of all, our lack of planning for this early on. But, as awkwardly as his driving career ended, everyone in our family feels grateful that it didn’t end in tragedy.

Joseph D. Younger has written about automotive topics for more than three decades.

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