Hanging up the keys

Tracey Ask Tracey, Columns

Dear Tracey,

It’s finally happened. My mother, who is 84 and mentally quite sharp, had her driver’s license taken away. Between my mother’s poor vision, slow reaction time, and inability to fully turn her head, her doctor said she needed to put the safety of herself and others first. I’m relieved.

But my mother is sad and irritated. She says driving was her lifeline and now feels like she’ll just ‘shrivel up and die.’ She’s always been independent. I also know she’s heartbroken about selling her car. (It was my dad’s car and she’s been driving it ever since he passed.)

I’ve been trying to reassure her that she can stay busy and see her friends but she says she doesn’t want to talk about it, that I can’t possibly understand how awful she feels.

I am happy, and able, to drive her anywhere she wants but what else can I do to make her feel better?


Concerned Daughter

Dear Reader,

The first thing you can do for your mother would be to sit down, close your eyes, and try very hard to imagine your life without the independence a car gives all of us who drive. 

How many times do you hop into your car to go get groceries, a prescription, or the dry cleaning? How often do you use it to visit a friend, help them because their car was in the shop, or take them to the airport?  Have you ever just gone for a drive because it was a beautiful day or, conversely, because you were having a terrible day?

Hopefully this exercise will help you empathize with your mother. By honestly understanding her reactions you will be better equipped to help her adjust to this huge life transition.

Recognize that your “mentally quite sharp” mother is mourning the loss of a very significant part of herself. Give or take a few years, she has probably been behind the wheel of a car for roughly 60 years? That car was her identity, her lifeline, her freedom. All of that has been snatched away from her. No wonder she feels like she will just “shrivel up and die.” 

For the time being, let your mother feel whatever she wants to feel. Of course she’s sad and irritated. Listen to what she has to say, even if it feels like useless complaining. She needs to get these feelings out. 

While you may be inclined to offer up solutions, now is not the time. Your mother’s not ready and solutions may just be another source of irritation. Nor should you whitewash her new reality with empty reassurances or bad jokes, like “hey, no more looking for a parking place!”

As for selling her car? That is the last thing that you should be considering right now. Since it was your father’s car first, your mother has one more emotional connection to it and driving. Let the car sit in the garage, for months if need be. The decision to sell the car will be your mother’s to make. In the meantime, you can, if she prefers, use it when you take her on errands or to visit friends.

It’s wonderful you are available to drive her over the next few months. Do you know your mother’s regular schedule very well? If so, offer to drive her before she has to ask. (Many people in your mother’s situation are reluctant to ask for rides for leisure activities.)

Realistically, your mother may not ever fully accept this limitation to her freedom. But when you see that she is a bit more resigned to her reality, ask her if you could explain what alternative modes of transportation are available to her. When she is ready to try them, go with her the first few times so she can feel more confident.

Finally, if your mother has computer skills, encourage her to use them. Show her all of the online services that are available. She can regain some of her independence by using online banking, bill paying, and shopping. 

This is a tough one, that’s for sure! Good luck to both of you.