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Taking Away the Car Keys

Mary’s niece, the only family member in the area, started to notice some concerns with her driving.  Soon other people started mentioning these driving concerns, which included backing out in front of people, going through stop signs, speeding down Main Street just to name a few.  This obviously caused concern to her adult children regarding her safety and that of others.

Her children knew what they had to do, but how, without paralyzing her community involvement?  How do you tell your Mother that the time had come to take away the car keys?

Mary was 84 years old and over the last 5 years had lost her husband and daughter.  She found herself alone in a large four square house on Main Street in a small Northeastern Iowa town.  Even into her elder years she was an active member of the community, working over 40 hours per week in her home with her own beauty salon business, the local nursing home and the funeral home. Getting into the community was an integral part of her life.  Mary was always driving herself to work, the grocery store, community events and to her daughter’s group home, which was only a few blocks away.

After losing her husband and daughter, her own retirement from work began to become more of a reality.  Her work had become her life and thus-another life altering event was occurring.  After 50 years of “shampoo and set’s” in her home, she made the decision that it was finally time to slow down and retire.  Mary had developed an essential hand tremor which bothered her during various activities but was otherwise healthy.  She continued volunteer work at the nursing home, enjoying the company of many of her past patrons and friends.  At 84, she continued to be physically active and enjoyed her new found “retirement”.  Mary was not a person to sit around the house… always on the go… finding things needing done and in the community.  Her energy level was amazing for a woman of this age.  At 84, Mary was still swinging on the bars of my children’s playset!

Mary did get frustrated with the fact her car was not starting and was getting ready to call a mechanic.   She also started telling us about “little people” coming to the house at night and how she would talk with them.  She was soon diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia and the doctor recommended she no longer drive and as a family we all agreed.

No longer being able to drive is an issue especially troubling to older individuals living in smaller communities without other modes of transportation.

A family meeting was called to discuss the best way to handle this critical situation.  The obvious safety concern led us to disable the vehicle – without Mary’s knowledge, of course.  This would hopefully “buy us time” while allowing us to start thinking ahead in regards to meals and transportation.  The family arranged for her to attend the local Senior Center for Noon meals and recreational activities.  Other attendees that were driving to the Senior Center would give Mary rides.  Initially she seemed to enjoy the activities; however she soon expressed her dislike of hanging out with all those “old people”.  We started Meals on Wheels after her complaints about the Senior Center and the family took turns coming home on weekends to take her out and run errands. During the week she had our niece or a neighbor who would help her.

Shortly after her diagnosis the local assisted living facility had an apartment come available and we immediately had it reserved.  This turned out to be the ideal living situation at this point in Mary’s life.  She also was pleased with her new apartment and no longer needed her car for transportation.

Every family has different scenarios but the same result, taking away independence. What made our situation more difficult was the fact that none of Mary’s children lived in the same town.  We had our niece but she worked full time and had two small children.  She did not have the time or resources to deal with this situation.  We felt helpless.

The availability of a care management agency would have been the answer in this particular situation.  They could have provided assessments to determine Mary’s needs, in home visits, doctor appointments, and most of all dealt with her transportation issue in a prompt and proper manner.  They would have ensured her individual rights, dignity and safety during times our family was not available.