When my mother (hereinafter referred to as “Yiayia”, because it’s easier; “Yiayia” is Greek for “Grandmother”) was in her late eighties, it became more and more clear that it would probably be best – for her and everyone else on the road – if she stopped driving.
According to Krisha McCoy, writing for Everyday Health, “Running stop signs and getting lost are indicators it may be time to give up your driver’s license.” McCoy’s piece, “6 Signs It’s Time to Stop Driving“, is a great resource and has a lot of helpful tips. And according to research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, “seniors [are] outliving their ability to drive safely by an average of seven to 10 years.”
Unfortunately, we did not have any such resource at the time, although we were getting progressively more strident warning signs. First, my son came home from school one day after Yiayia had picked him up, and observed, “I think it’s time for her to stop driving.” Why? I asked. His response: “Because everyone else on the road is either a moron or an idiot.” Ahh, from the mouths of babes, or in this case, an 11-year-old. Turns out, he was absolutely right, but we didn’t listen. And let’s tell ourselves the truth here – when you’re a busy working parent and a member of the sandwich generation, giving up the tremendous convenience of having your parent pick up the kids from school each day is a hard thing to do. And it’s not because you’re selfish – it’s because you’re overwhelmed. We’ve been there, and we get it.
The final, unignorable (is that a word? It should be) came when Yiayia arrived back home one day from her afternoon shopping trip. She came in the house and – well, here’s the terrifying conversation:
- “I think I need to go to the doctor.”
- “OK, did something happen?”
- “I was turning out of the shopping center to go north and – well, the best way I can explain it is that I blacked out. When I came to, I was going north – in the southbound lanes.”
Be Still My Heart – No, Really
At that moment, even Yiayia knew she shouldn’t be driving. To make a long story short, her heart was stopping. Stopping! She reluctantly agreed to have a pacemaker installed, but not without some serious conversations with the cardiologist. You can read more about those conversations in “If Your Loved One Needs a Pacemaker”.
Once the pacemaker was installed, we faced another obstacle to her desire to get back on the road: fear. By then, it had been a couple of months since she’d driven, and she was understandably nervous. Her primary care physician suggested that she take a few lessons, which he thought might boost her confidence. We thought that was a great idea; she flatly refused. Looking back, I now realize that she was probably terrified of what the instructor would think, but at the time I couldn’t see past her blustery “That’s ridiculous! I don’t need an instructor; I’ve been driving for 70 years.”
Not surprisingly, Yiayia was very depressed at the loss of freedom caused by her unwillingness/inability to drive. I am glad that we live in a somewhat walkable area, because she was able to walk to a few local stores, which helped lessen her feelings of isolation and dependence. She walked every day, and I have no doubt that those walks contributed to her continued mobility and mental acuity.
The Carrot and the Stick
As for the driving, the doctor tried another tactic. Yiayia’s blood sugar had been borderline “you need insulin” for years. By this time, it had gone from a suggestion to more of a mandate, one she also refused to heed. The doctor tried using this incentive (I’m not sure whether to call this a carrot or a stick; I suppose it depends on your perspective) as a way to convince her:
- Doctor: “Helen, if you do not take insulin, I will not clear you for driving.”
- Yiayia: “I’ll think about it.”
She thought about it, alright. She thought about it for 18 months. During that time, we were desperate to preserve the charade that she would one day drive again, desperate to keep her optimism up. So desperate that we avoided the subject altogether, except for occasional references to “when you start driving again.” Keeping up this charade included, of course, keeping her car insured – for $100 a month. And that, in hindsight, was dumb. It cost us $1800 because we were uncomfortable forcing the issue.
I don’t know; maybe it wasn’t dumb. Maybe $100 a month was a small price to pay for her hope.
Whatever your situation, if you think that it might be time to have the talk, it probably is. If you’re looking for ideas for broaching the topic, the folks at CHORUS (the Clearinghouse for Older Road User Safety) provide some excellent ideas in “10 Suggestions On How to Approach Your Aging Parent’s Driving.”