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Posted on September 01, 2003

Is it Time to Put Away the Keys?

by Bob (Ram) Muessig

    Many of us have had to deal with the unpleasant task of convincing someone we love that it’s simply time to give up driving due to advanced age, infirmity, or illness of one sort or another. My mother, at the age of 83, decided that it was time to stop driving. Of course, I helped her make that decision and encouraged her to do so.

    Mom had had a series of small fender-benders and I began to see the handwriting on the wall. None of the accidents she had been involved in were really anything when considered on an individual basis, but a pattern was forming. A couple of them had been ‘backing’ accidents in mall parking lots; a couple were ‘turning’ accidents on side streets or into driveways (bumping a sign, tree, or another vehicle parked on the street), and one was a ‘side-swipe’ accident involving another motorist. By themselves, they weren’t something to be considered abnormal. But there was definitely something taking place...something extremely dangerous!

    My mother’s eyesight was deteriorating. Her hearing wasn’t as good as it used to be. Her memory was slipping a bit, and once she had even forgotten where she was...and on a familiar street. When you couple these traits with an accident or two, no matter how minor, it’s actually past time to think about putting away the keys. Mom had been racking up these accidents over a period of about two years. She had always been a good driver. In fact, up until that two-year period, she had never been cited for any kind of traffic violation or infraction, nor had she been in any kind of accident for over forty years. How many of us can make that claim?

    Her last accident was the one which helped her make the decision to hang it up. She was traveling down a side street in a residential area and was approaching a cross street (a major two-lane through street) which was heavily traveled by delivery trucks, area residents, and commuters. All streets which crossed it had stop signs posted, but Mom simply did not see one of them. She entered the intersection at about twenty miles per hour...right smack dab in front of a commuter on the way home from work. The inevitable happened. The commuter swerved to avoid the collision but didn’t quite make it. The right side of Mom’s car from the passenger door back was smashed, and the car was spun around, knocking over a small tree by the curb. Mom was shaken but not injured, thank God. Her car was towed to a garage and a friend brought her home.

   We talked at great length about the accident, and I discovered that she had difficulty remembering any of the details. At first, she said she had stopped. Then she wasn’t sure. In fact, I found that she wasn’t even sure which street she was on in the first place. Time to quit? Darn right it was, and I knew it. Mom wanted to get the car repaired. I told her that it would be too expensive to fix and convinced her that it would be cheaper to get a new car. I said that her car was totaled, even though it wasn’t, knowing full well that she was simply too frugal to spend the money for a new one.

   The following day, I scheduled an appointment at an Alzheimer's Screening Clinic and told Mom that it was for a physical exam after the accident to make sure that nothing was wrong...just in case. She agreed to go. I’m glad that I got her in, for she was diagnosed with Senile Dementia, an old-fashioned catchall term for a collection of symptoms which can have many etiologies. Bottom line - regardless of the cause, it would only get worse with the passage of time.

   Is the above scenario uncommon? Absolutely NOT! In fact, it’s all too common and we should be aware of all the factors which take place so that we may be able to help our loved ones make important decisions like the one about putting away the give up driving.

   Teenagers see getting their driver’s license as ‘gaining their freedom’, while older adults see giving up driving as ‘losing theirs’. Losing the ability to drive, however, doesn’t really mean losing freedom. A person may be able to use alternative methods of transportation - the bus, the commuter train, or perhaps riding into town with a neighbor. Who really cares, as long as that older adult doesn’t lose his or her life in an tragic accident which could have been avoided altogether?

   If you’re concerned about a loved one, here are a few things to watch for…

Forgetfulness - regarding recent events or familiar places, dates, and times.

A series of minor incidents or accidents in a short span of time.

Failing eyesight or hearing.

Being unable to understand or read ordinary road signs.

Getting lost on familiar streets or roads.

Having other drivers honk at you frequently.

Being spoken to by police, family, friends, or your insurance company.

   I realize that a driver’s age is not a good way to predict ability. What really counts is performance. If you have concerns about someone you care for, contact the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). Ask them about the 55 Alive safe driving program and get the details. Then approach your loved one firmly but gently, for no one wants to be reminded that they are aging. They already know it.

    Try to keep these things in mind as you grow older, too. You could be saving a life...yours.

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