Taking Away Daddy’s Keys

When my friend Ted’s dad died in hospice last summer, Ted’s family asked if he had any final words to say at his father’s bedside.

“Yes,” he said, turning to the corpse. “Dad, I’m the one who turned you in to the DMV.”

Ted swears he heard a voice from beyond the grave muttering, “You @$!!*#. So you’re the one who had my driver’s license taken away!”

How to deal with dangerous elderly drivers has become a frequent topic of conversation for my family and friends.

Take my husband’s Uncle Myron, a retired Colorado dude rancher who drove (badly) into his 90s. When he plowed his car into the side of a garbage truck, the family decided it was time to take away the car keys.

Undaunted, Myron displayed what some may call cowboy spunk and hitchhiked to the local funeral home, where he tried to “cash in” his prepaid funeral arrangements in order to buy another vehicle. The funeral director excused himself, went into another room and called Myron’s son. It was the end of Myron’s driving days.

These stories may have a darkly comic element, but there’s nothing funny about putting the brakes on an elderly parent who is determined to drive despite diminishing vision and physical abilities. AAA says seniors are outliving their ability to drive safely by an average of seven to 10 years – and notes that families rarely discuss this sensitive issue.

I know. Like Ted, I turned in my 94-year-old dad to the Michigan Secretary of State earlier this year, an action that continues to have major repercussions for his life and my relationship with him.

My dad is a retired Detroit police lieutenant who gave driving tests in his early days on the job. He taught me how to drive, with frequent reminders about the illegalities of rolling stops, racing to beat a red light and failure to use turn signals.

Driving to him was a masculine point of pride. When he fell in March and ended up in rehab for a month, his physical therapy goal was to get behind the wheel again. Everyone admired his drive and dedication to his program.

But every time I spoke privately to his physical therapist, I was told, “He’s not ready to drive.” Macular degeneration, a serious eye disorder, further complicated things for my dad. We had serious talks about giving up the keys, but he refused to do so. He didn’t want to be a burden to his family, he said.

When I removed the car keys my parents kept in a little crystal bowl near the front door, my mother threatened to call the local cops and turn me in for “car theft.” I returned the keys and decided to request a driver’s reexamination with the Michigan Secretary of State by filling out an OC-88 form. Let a neutral third party decide whether he was fit to drive, I thought.

It took almost six months for my dad to finally get in front of a DMV examiner, who looked over his medical records, shook his head, and then refused to get in the car with him for a retest. The examiner revoked his license on the spot.

I witnessed this depressing episode because I went with my dad to the appointment in order to drive him home. I knew it was one of the worst days of his life. Mine, too. Despite the “anonymity” of the DMV process, I’m sure my parents know it’s me who turned in my dad. As a result, our relationship has suffered.

Because my mother hasn’t driven for years, my parents now have become shut-ins who must depend on family members and friends for groceries, medical appointments and trips to the casino. They are safer, but they are angry. My dad’s only rides these days are the electric lift installed on the steps of his condo and his walker.

Based on my experience, along with studies and anecdotal evidence, I am convinced that the states need to do a better job of policing elderly drivers. These drivers should be reevaluated on a regular basis, complete with road tests. It would take the pressure off the families of these older drivers, eliminate ill will, and make our roads safer.

I mentioned all of this to my dad’s eye doctor recently. He was sympathetic, but said he could see a solution on the horizon.

“More than any medications, the one thing that will help people like your dad is self-driving cars,” he said. “They can’t get here soon enough.”

May Mobility
Self-driving shuttles are making life easier for some non-drivers.

My dad knows that self-driving cars may be his salvation. He recently told me: “I’ll bet you won’t need a driver’s license to ride in a self-driving car.” The prospect of getting back on the road gives him renewed hope for freedom.

Images by Anita Lienert

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