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Older Elders, Adult Children and 'The Car'


At what point do you encourage or insist that parents in their late 80s and early 90s stop driving? Every adult child speaks quietly and with angst about this aging parent car conundrum. Almost no one is satisfied with the end result. It seems to be a painful, no-win dilemma in just about every family. More so if adult children live at a distance from their parents.

In their 90s my parents had almost completely cut back on their driving at night, but they continued to be active in church, in Democratic politics, and with various interfaith organizations. They loved attending concerts at the small university next door to their retirement community. Yet I noticed, as did others, that they were not driving as well as they had in the past. More worrisome was the constant stream of media stories, some true some fake, about elders pressing the accelerator instead of the brake and causing serious accidents.

So we did what other adult children do, first trying to persuade or cajole and stressing the need to stop driving for the sake of safety. Then we considered consulting with physicians and/or the state motor vehicles office but decided against that route. We found ourselves in an untenable situation.

Eventually, I needed to make a decision, and I did, arranging to sell the car.

I will never forget the day we drove away with my parents’ car — a bad day for me — but probably right up there in the top 10 worst days in my mother’s life (even though she had told me many times in the past to make the car decision when I thought it was time). My dad, whose memory is weak, was gloomy, my mother moved back and forth between disconsolate and angry. Losing the car disconnected her from the events and many of the people with whom she connected. Without those activities — activities that had apparently sustained her intellectually —we observed an immediate decline.

Oh, my mother tried valiantly to learn how to use the public bus and to ask (and occasionally beg) friends for rides. Church rides were easy to secure, other activities not so much. We tried scheduling a driver to come in twice a week to take them where they wanted to go, but this, too, was complicated, since the transportation did not usually match up with things they wanted to do. Securing a ride to an event was often a challenge, but once my parents got there, they found that rides home were fairly easy. Friends were great, but many gradually became exhausted by my mom’s calls.

The retirement community’s transportation solution was great for independent people who are still at an age where calendars and planning are paramount, but not so good for people who still have a love of life’s daily activities but whose planning skills are declining.

If only Mom had been a few years younger, she could have easily learned to use UBER or Lyft — there were several drivers in their town for each, because she knew how to use her mobile phone. Perhaps ride-sharing is the ultimate solution for older elders. But the mechanics which involved learning a new app on her cell were too complicated.

Older elders want their independence — indeed the ability to go out and do things sustains them intellectually. Car decisions must be made, but I cannot report any happy ending to this story.

So what have I learned from this situation that I can share with other adult children?

  1. Parents will cope, grudgingly with a driving decision. Their angry comments and even their threats are transitory.
  2. When elderly parents can no longer go out and do things that help them stay intellectually or socially connected, they may decline cognitively.
  3. In the future, I will do exactly what my mom did with me. I’ll tell my daughter to make the driving decision when necessary, but I’ll add that she should not take anything I say personally if I am angry about it.
  4. If I choose to live in a retirement community, it will be in a walkable neighborhood — to a grocery store, a pharmacy, etc. I guess this probably means that any place I choose will be in an urban or larger university environment, the type of place where I already live.
  5. Ride-sharing solutions are critical, and I need to learn how to use them so that I can depend on them later in life. However, retirement communities need to explore, promote ride-sharing and even consider in-house ride-sharing solutions.

This story originally appeared on As Our Parents Age.

Getty photo by Zoran Zeremski