My wife and I visited Florida in May and, as I recall from my experiences traveling there to visit my grandparents in the days of my youth, we noticed many senior citizens driving the highways and byways of Fort Lauderdale in their big boat cars.
The idea of the little old lady in the Crown Vic has become something of a joke, a stereotype that has a basis in fact. Legend has it that driverless cars have been reported (in the days before Google) that turned out to have Grandma at the helm, now so shrunken that she could not be seen over the steering wheel.
At the time of her death, my grandmother, who lived to the age of 97, had not driven in well over twenty years, probably closer to thirty. (Unless, that is, you count her oversized adult tricycle with ANN on the license plate.) She didn’t really need to drive, as my grandfather took care of that all the way up to his death at the age of 82. After that, Grandma pitched in a bunch of money so that she and her daughter could purchase a house. Grandma had her own little wing with private bath and my aunt and her husband took up the driving duties.
My mother stopped driving about the time my parents retired and moved from New York to California, more than twenty years ago. My father, who will turn 83 this fall, does all the driving. He was a driver education teacher for 30 years and wouldn’t have it any other way. He claims that spending his life driving was a curse wished upon him by his own father when, as a teenager, Dad was always taking his car.
Thankfully, my parents no longer make cross-country road trips as they did for years, particularly when my sister still lived in Boston. Sis resides in Dallas these days. After a few annual road trips to the Lone Star State, my parents gave it up in favor of flying. It’s a real pain. They drive three hours to San José, stay over in a hotel, pay to park their car, take the shuttle to the airport, wait forever at the TSA checkpoint, then hop the first leg of a flight that usually involves at least one change. When they arrive at DFW, they have to rent a car so that they’re not stuck at my sister’s house with no escape for a week. Still, it’s better than 23 hours of driving to Texas and then the same back to California.
My other sister lives in the Bay Area (except when she’s working out of state), and my parents usually make the six-hour round trip to visit her once or twice per month. Three or four times each year, they drive up here to the Sacramento area to visit us, a nearly nine-hour round trip. We live in two rooms and there is no place for anyone to stay over. Rather than expending the money and effort of packing clothes and paying for a hotel, my parents treat it as a day trip. More than once, my parents have mentioned that it’s more driving than they can safely do in a day. Most of the time, we go there. To be honest, however, we don’t go all that often. We both work hard during the week and we prize our time off on the weekends. Still, we made the drive to the Central Valley for Father’s Day in June and met my parents at my sister’s home in the Bay Area for my nephew’s birthday last weekend. My parents will likely drive up for my wife’s birthday next month and we will spend several days there for the High Holy Days in October.
Needless to say, something has got to give. My parents aren’t getting any younger. I’ve expressed my concerns in this space on many occasions. The fact that they live out in the boonies doesn’t help the situation. When I ask my mother how they’ll take care of that big place when they’re 90, she admits that they won’t be able to do so. Well, that’s seven years away. For now, my parents are doing fairly well for their age. However, I cannot escape the feeling that the future is now, just one phone call in the middle of the night away. Along with a million other things, what will my mother do about driving when Dad is no longer around? Will she suddenly begin driving again at the age of 90? I mean, the minimum driving age in California is 16, but what is the maximum driving age?
Meanwhile, can I count on my father to stop driving when it’s no longer safe for him to do so? I seriously doubt it. His hearing is now considerably diminished and I can only hope that the manifestation of his road rage is limited to the stream of unprintable invective that streams from his mouth any time he objects to the actions of another driver. My mother assures me that’s not the half of it.
How do you tell a parent that he or she shouldn’t drive anymore? And what are the children supposed to do when driving is the only way the parents can get to the grocery store, to the doctor, to worship services or anywhere? My father says that getting old is not for sissies. But to leave elders as prisoners in their own homes seems like adding insult to injury.
My grandmother used to tell me that, in Broward County, Florida, anyone over the age of 70 who surrendered his or her driver’s license would be given a free bus pass. But when you live out in the country, it’s not like you can just walk to the corner and wait for the bus. If we’re lucky, perhaps my mother will go live with my sister when the time comes. But what about in the meantime? Will my father continue to drive until he has a serious accident? Remember, no driving means no independence (at least in rural California it does).
I read an article today about how to get your elderly parents to stop driving. To me, the suggestions are nothing short of despicable. To wit:
- Contact your parents’ auto insurance agency and get them to cancel their policy. (So now I’m supposed to turn informant on my folks? Wait, wasn’t that what the Nazis encouraged kids to do?)
- Place an anti-theft club on the steering wheel of your parents’ car. (They already use one.)
- Move the seat all the way forward so your elderly parent can’t get into the car and sit down. (Fortunately, my parents still have all their marbles and know quite well how to adjust the seat. Umm, I think.)
- Remove the distributor cap and tell your parents that their car can’t be driven because it won’t pass smog. (If you don’t live in California, you can’t appreciate the headache of the infamous smog test.) (My father can take a car apart and put it together again. I know because he’s done it. Exhibit A is the perfectly running Model T Ford sitting in his garage. He takes it out for rides periodically.)
- Simply sell their car! (Someone explain this one to me, please. How exactly does one sell something that belongs to someone else? Wait, isn’t there something in the California Criminal Code about that?)
Tell me that people haven’t lost their minds. Please.