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BINTEL BRIEFHow do I get my elderly relatives to stop driving?

Bintel says honor them by keeping them safe. Here’s how to help figure out if it’s time to take away the car keys.

The Forward has been solving reader dilemmas since 1906 in A Bintel Brief, Yiddish for a bundle of letters. Send us your quandaries about Jewish life, love, family, friends or work via email, Twitter or this form.

Dear Bintel, 

Both my mother (92) and mother-in-law (88) still drive, and neither of them should really be behind the wheel at this point. They both value their independence and think they drive fine. They also drive other people who can’t drive anymore. 

How do we gently tell them they shouldn’t be driving (and have them take our advice)? My mother-in-law’s mother had to be in an accident before she would give up her car! I don’t want to wait for an accident. Help!

Signed,
Dreading This Conversation 

Dear Dreading, 

Is there a more universal problem than this in modern life? We should all be lucky enough to reach the age where we can no longer safely drive ourselves or others. And we all dread the day of having to tell a loved one that this day has come for them. 

For many of us in the so-called Sandwich Generation, we’re contemplating taking the keys away from our aging parents just as our own kids are coming of driving age, which only makes this doubly terrifying terrain.

The bad news is, you’ve got to take those keys away, and the ladies are not going to be happy about it. The Jewish concept of pikuach nefesh, which allows the violation of other mitzvot in order to save a life, demands this. And in truth, I’d file this under honoring one’s parents — you are honoring them by helping them gracefully face the truth about aging rather than risk the psychological and physical trauma of causing an accident involving someone they care about.

The good news is, we live in the age of Uber! No longer does taking away the keys mean the end of an elder’s independence! A smart Sandwicher will start easing their parents into ride-sharing apps early, long before they present a danger to themselves or others. 

Look, Ma, you can still go out to dinner with your friend even though your night vision isn’t great! Hey Dad, you don’t have to worry about whether your knees can handle the long walk from the parking lot, they’ll drop you right at the door! You can point out how you — and perhaps your kids! — use Uber or Lyft or other services, making clear this is not just for those losing their faculties.

It may be too late for that in your case, given the ages you mentioned. I can hear you muttering about how they don’t have smartphones or refuse to use them smartly. That’s where GoGoGrandparent comes in. 

It’s not cheap (Basic is $8 a month, Value is $20) but your mom and mother-in-law can dial a phone number to order rides (or groceries, takeout meals and prescriptions). GoGo vets drivers, brokers services and caters to special needs like a larger trunk to accommodate a walker.  

You can also configure Uber to a “family” setting that lets others — order the rides for them. Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch to re-frame the key-taking confrontation as an opportunity to interact more with you and the grandkids, but … it really *can* be that as well. You’re likely in no position to take over all the driving they’re now doing themselves, but if you live in the same area, it’s not a bad silver lining to suggest that as part of this next phase, you’d love to take them some of the places they need to go. 

None of this is going to make this conversation easy. Driving has become perhaps the biggest symbol of independence for the aging generation. So I suggest outsourcing the trickiest part: determining whether the time has indeed come.

I learned after my own parents were in a serious car accident last fall that there are professionals to address this difficult question: people who will come and give your elders a verbal exam — general memory, reflexes and knowledge of road rules — and, if they pass that, a road test like we took when we were 16. It’s not cheap, but handing the decision to an objective third party will take some of the emotion out of the process and will provide a reality check for everyone. 

These services differ by area. For example, I Drive Smart, which serves Washington and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs, is run by former police officers and costs $425 for a 15- to 20-minute cognitive assessment and, assuming it’s deemed safe, 30 minutes behind the wheel of the company’s vehicle to assess the driver’s awareness of signs and other cars and ability to park. 

I found a different setup at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Centers in the Boston area. They do a one- to two-hour clinical assessment ($230, not covered by insurance) of the driver’s strength, coordination and knowledge of safety rules and then, on a separate day, 90 minutes on the road ($375). A doctor’s referral is required and the results are sometimes automatically reported to the Department of Motor Vehicles.    

I know that sounds like a lot. I wouldn’t be surprised if once you suggest such a test, one or both of your beloved elders will just hand over the keys rather than deal with the expense, hassle and potential humiliation of such a process. Which would be something of a blessing. 

If they resist, maybe remind them of what happened to your mother-in-law’s mother. And she is not alone. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released a study last year showing that drivers in their 70s and 80s were three to four times as likely as middle-aged ones to die in a crash.

Your letter says pretty clearly that “neither of them should really be behind the wheel.” Once you can say this out loud (or write it to an advice column), it’s simply too risky to let them keep doing it. 

Signed,
Bintel

Postscript: After this column was first published, many readers wrote in with advice or stories of their own, some of which were too good to keep to ourselves.

Marsha Weiner suggested created a “secular ritual” to mark the transition away from driving, and shared this article she co-wrote describing such a ritual — a party whose invitations featured a photo of the older person with his 1960 red convertible where guests honked a car horn as they entered.

“As in any transition, there are ways to honor and celebrate the past, to accept the present, to move into the future — including playing a soundtrack of music that was relished in the car, burning insurance bills and car  maintenance bills, and accepting chits from friends and family to provide mobility, even for those road trips to nowhere,” Marsha wrote in an email.

“Our culture invested a great deal of identity in independent mobility with a car in the near past,” she added. “It’s  worth noting that  younger people have a very different attitude towards car ownership for a bunch of reasons, including environmental concerns.

Just as hearing aids used to be a source of embarrassment, now EVERYONE is walking around with ear buds of some sort.”

Ira Mayer, meanwhile, said that “taking away the keys” should not be just a metaphor — you should take away the car itself. He was speaking from experience.

Ira recalled the night he broke the news to his own mother that her driving days were over. “If we won’t let you drive with the grandchildren in the car, you shouldn’t be driving yourself or your friends, either,” he told her as he drove her home to Far Rockaway from Shabbat dinner in Brooklyn. “It’s a danger to you and to those around you.”

Mom was silent for the rest of the ride, Ira said. But when he got home 20 minutes later, she had called and left a message. “If that’s what you and your sister have agreed, I have to accept that, but you cannot leave the car here,” she said. “You need to come back right now and take it away. I can’t wake up tomorrow morning and see it out the window.”

So he turned around and went back to Rockaway.

Do you have an opinion about this Bintel, or a question of your own? We’d love to hear from you. Email [email protected].

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