After living happily in their retirement community for nearly fifteen years, my parents were declining. My dad’s memory was weak, and my mom fell frequently. In their nineties, they ate almost every meal in one of the cafes and gradually ceased to use the various gadgets in their lives —the dishwasher, the c-pap mask, the humidifier, etc. Using a computer was becoming more difficult.
The biggest gadget in their lives, however, was the car, and they were still driving — dad mostly — despite his memory issues. My parents were accident free, but it was clear that certain things befuddled them — left hand turns, some items on the car dashboard, remembering directions.
I, the adult child, spoke with their doctor, with the social worker at their retirement community. and to a few of their younger friends. Everyone agreed that it was time for them to stop driving. I also inquired at the state motor vehicles department, because it was possible for that agency to require them to come in and retake a driving test. But I wanted to avoid subterfuge unless I could not solve the problem any other way. I was fortunate that after many conversations about safety, insurance, and family resources, they grudgingly gave permission to sell the car.
Not inconsequentially, when people no longer have access to a car, they find themselves living dramatically different and more isolated lives. That’s why most older elders will fight so hard to keep the car as long as possible.
With the car gone, my parents immediately experienced significant cognitive decline — not surprising since mom and dad could not easily get to any of their former activities — church, lectures, concerts, restaurants. Plenty of kind friends offered rides, but gradually my parents stopped accepting transportation. They did not like depending on others. Learning how to use Uber and Lyft was not possible. I found students who we could hire to drive them places, but they did not like all the planning involved to set up a ride. .
All through what I called “the driving challenge” it felt like I was looking into my own future. Figuring out when to stop driving is a universal problem in families, a problem that all of us will eventually encounter in our own elderly lives. All of us will need to part with our cars at some point. When the time comes, I expect most of us will not migrate into the carless world as gracefully as we should.
As much as my mom loved me, and she frequently told me so, she also commented, over and over, to me, to friends, and to anyone else who would listen, that taking away the car had ruined their lives. And whenever the subject came up, I felt terrible.
I don’t think my mother ever forgave me.