Saturday, January 29, 2011

Aging Parents: To Drive or Not to Drive--That is the Question

This e-mail photo was forwarded to me by a casual acquaintance who doesn't know I write a blog.  I could see the humor, yet my reaction was not to laugh.  It perpetuates the idea that older people are scary drivers. When we think "seniors' driving," do we think "responsible older people trying hard to stay independent, alert and safe?" Hummm.....
Next Tuesday's post will impart specific information and help for the senior driving dilemma. Today I let you into the heads of older women participating in a driving discussion at a Woman’s Club in New York. Prevailing reluctance to give up driving coexists with an acute awareness of responsible driving.
“I think one of the worst things is, when you can’t drive.  I can’t—I can’t envision my life—can you?  It really means a terrible change—It’s very limiting— especially in a suburban community,” says the Club President, who’s in her late seventies.
Ninety-two-year-old, still-driving E adds: “It’s the worst thing about getting older…you don’t want to lose your independence…but there comes a time…”
Eighty-five-year-old L chimes in, “But you can’t put someone else’s life in danger…”
E continues, “If I have a day when I don’t feel right, I don’t drive; if I feel tired, I don’t drive, and I’ve gotten so I don’t drive except when I’m absolutely sure where I’m going.”
J, whose age we don’t know because she won’t tell us until she’s 100, sums it up: “A lot of people can’t be honest with themselves and try to be something they can’t be.  It’s accepting of a lessening of yourself and it’s not pleasant.  But you have to settle for some of this.”
Honesty.  Acceptance.  Why, when it comes to driving, do these traits seem to be lacking in otherwise rational, older adults?  One answer lies in a powerful psychological defense mechanism: denial.  It's the opposite of acceptance. Mental health professionals tell us that denial protects us from having to face a reality we are not yet ready to cope with.
J, is a no-nonsense woman, who graduated from law school in the 1920s. It explains perhaps why she instinctively evaluates, is honest with herself, and has recently confined herself to local driving.  Of the “old school,”she gave up her profession, raised a family and joined a garden club.  While she had been driving major highways for decades to judge garden club events and flower shows, she says one day she began feeling less comfortable.  “I kept thinking about the possibility of an accident--someone else’s--on the highway and I asked myself, ‘Do I want to risk getting stuck in a traffic jam and having to wait for an hour or more on a major highway?'

Then I realized highway driving wasn’t enjoyable anymore… It’s something--limiting my driving--I do for myself.  No one wants to be of a certain age and be treated like an infant.  I want to make these decisions for myself.”
How long should the elderly drive? This question haunts almost every family with aging parents.  As we try to help parents age well, getting as much information as possible for mentally alert parents, before a problem arises, makes sense and can prevent older parents from feeling diminished, from being treated like an infant. Stay tuned for this Tuesday's post.

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