Asking a World War II Vet to Give Up His Freedom

During World War II, Joe served his country working as a fire warden in the Navy’s shipyards in Norfolk, Virginia.

After the war, his family remembers him as a strong, vigorous man: working in his woodshop, fixing things around the house, painting, and playing the violin and mandolin.

But after he turned after 80, his health began to decline.

Spinal stenosis made it painful for Joe to lift and move his legs while driving. Eventually, he resorted to pulling on his pant leg to drag his foot from the gas to the brake pedal.

When his wife and daughter saw that… they knew it was time to take away Joe’s keys.

But the right choice is rarely the easy one. For Joe, driving had always been a symbol of independence. He had grown up as cars became a key part of American culture. Having your own car was a badge of honor.

So when his daughter told him he had to stop driving, that he was putting himself and others at risk, Joe balked. He argued that she was asking him to give up the thing he fought for… freedom. He couldn’t accept it, until he saw the math…

Statistically, drivers over the age of 70 are more likely to be involved in a fatal car crash than other groups. And people older than 69 who have accidents have a 17% higher risk of dying from the crash.

Eventually, Joe agreed to give up his keys. He kept his license as a matter of pride, but never drove again.

It’s a painful conversation. But one that confronts many of us with aging parents…

Maybe your own father is like Joe, insisting that he can keep driving even when physical limitations put him at risk. Or maybe your mother has trouble concentrating, and you worry about her having a serious accident.

For those of us with aging parents, these are realities we have to face. We dread having a conversation about giving up driving because we don’t want to take away our parent’s independence or suggest they’re getting too old to take care of themselves.

But the safety of your parents and everyone on the road around them must take precedence over our personal discomfort… So here’s how to get started with that difficult conversation…

First, go on a few test drives with your parent. See how he or she acts. Is he anxious? Does she stick to local routes or venture onto highways? Does he ask you about directions he should know? Does she move her legs and neck well, or does she have problems reacting?

Also important, see if they are reluctant to drive you. If your parents ask you to drive them instead, they may start sensing their own trouble before admitting it.

Make sure your parent gets regular hearing and vision tests. Staying on top of that is not only beneficial for driving, but for every other aspect of everyday life.

Test their reaction times. You can try this simply by playing catch or trying this ruler-catching exercise.

Resource websites like Caring.com for older folks also advise checking your parent’s car for signs of damage. Your parent may not tell you about each fender bender for fear of losing his or her license altogether.

If you are concerned about any part of your parent’s driving, have an open and honest discussion with them. Start early and suggest taking smaller steps. These might include avoiding highways or staying within a local area.

You may also want to ask your parent to participate in a comprehensive driving evaluation. It’s a test administered by an occupational therapist and designed specifically for older drivers.

We talked with two certified driver rehabilitation specialists here in Baltimore. Jan Crye of Sinai Rehabilitation and Carol Wheatley of MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital explained their testing process to us.

First, they perform simple tests in their offices. These measure things like field of vision, neck and leg mobility, reaction time, and decision-making ability. Researchers have put together these evaluations after plenty of evidence-based testing.

After the clinical portion comes the on-road test. These tests get progressively more difficult based on ability. Occupational therapists use these evaluations to offer an unbiased, medically backed assessment of your parent, which can often take some of the pressure off of the decision.

For some folks, the tests will show everything is fine. You’ll have peace of mind knowing the evaluation showed no problems.

In most cases though, the therapist will recommend modifications. These are special pieces of equipment you can add to your car to allow you to drive safely. If you need help seeing your blind spot, panoramic mirrors may help. If you have trouble with your legs, they could recommend hand controls for the gas and brakes.

Modifications aren’t cheap, but they can help your parent maintain his independence longer. It’s a point you must discuss with your family – consider the costs and other options for transportation.

And sometimes, the therapist may recommend that your parent stop driving. If that happens, she will discuss other options with you. Things like public transportation, family and neighbors driving, or even using programs like the ride-booking website Uber are all options.

We need to be clear, Medicare does not cover these evaluations. Here in Baltimore, we received quotes about $350 to $400 for the full test (both clinical and in-car). Some places may run higher.

As our therapists pointed out, starting the conversation with your parents early and transitioning them to give up driving is much easier than stopping all at once. We can’t tell you what’s best for your situation. But we encourage you to consider your options for your parent’s safety.

With help from Jan and Carol, we gathered some informative resources to get you started:

Taking the keys from Mom or Dad is a life-changing moment. But it doesn’t have to happen all at once. Start early with an open, honest discussion. Go over all the options and help them ease into it. If you haven’t talked to them about driving yet, we encourage you to start the conversation today.

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