Old people driving? Following the recent car accident involving Prince Philip in January 2019 the debate about safe driving and old age has experienced a renewed airing. Stopping activities that may put us and others at risk should be straight forward. But it isn’t. Why?
Because there is a psychological component, which can keep us locked into a behaviour, even though it might be well beyond its “responsible” date. Take my late father as an example.
I hung up my car keys for financial reasons, and I am at peace with that – sort of. When my father finally hung up his car keys it was due to age and family pressure. And he never made peace with it.
He had always been a safe driver. There were no medical grounds for him to stop driving.
The older he got, the more frustrated be became with a world that was changing and he felt he no longer belonged. Retirement was painful enough, leaving him with a great void of purpose, identity and status in society. People of his age and younger started dying. Ageing and mortality stared him in the face daily.
Driving was one way of holding on to the old him. The car he had driven and lovingly looked after for over 20 years represented independence and freedom.
Over the years he became extra cautious, always expecting the worst of other drivers. Often he would assess traffic situations wrongly. Sudden breaking and accelerating were not unusual. Trying to reason with him was rarely possible and usually let to arguments.
By that time my father had stopped driving on the motorway and would only do short distances in the local area. But still, it did not feel right to my mother and I. Towards the end I refused to drive with him, and my mother would do the same on many, but not all occasions.
Loyalty to a loved one, avoiding domestic conflict and being socially responsible towards others can be hard choices to make.
Gradually we convinced him that driving in the dark was not a good idea. It was surprisingly easy, mostly because he did not go out much when it was dark.
While we tried to encourage him to consider giving up driving altogether, he would end up driving increasing often on his own – partly out of necessity, partly out of defiance. This caused my mother great anxiety. Especially as my father refused to use a mobile phone.
Then serendipity stepped in. The car broke down a few times. It was showing its age. Breaking down at busy junctions with no mobile phone, made my father feel the vulnerability he had hoped to avoid by driving in the first place. He hated being dependant on others and the fear of breaking down gradually put him off driving. No longer could he shut the door on the world and drive in his own bubble.
From time to time he ventured out by bus. But he refused getting a bus pass and insisted on paying. A bus pass would have made things final.
Change rarely came easy for my father. Perhaps because he had experienced too much forced change in his life.
In the end the car would spent more time in the garage than out. After another year of talking about whether money spent on a car, that is not used for driving, could not be used for a better purpose, he finally started to relent. But ever so slowly and quietly, on his terms. He finally agreed to stop driving altogether.
Letting go of the car was another thing. His car keys would remain on his bedside table. And I would not be surprised, if he sometimes un/consciously put them in his trouser pocket, as he had done most of his adult life.
Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer and unable to work for a year. Money became increasingly tight. Out of concern for me, my father started considering selling the car. But it was difficult for him to trust others with it. He wanted it to go to a good home. Ideally a home he knew. But there was none.
My mother advertised the car in the paper. An act which we take for granted, left my father feeling exposed and fretting about who would come to the door. Mistrust got the better of him, causing my mother too much stress. So the whole thing got called off.
Finally the local garage, who had serviced the car for decades, took it off his hands. My father gave me the money he had received. Even though my needs were great, it took me a long time to spend it.
It had felt like blood money.
This whole episode left my father a changed man. The emotional wounds would heal, but I know there were scars he would not show. He increasingly isolated himself from the world around him and us.
The garage would remain untouched, like the bedroom of a child that had left home or died.
He struggled with accepting what had happened, with ageing, becoming dependant and not having it has way. Sadly my father found it hard to see in himself the value he had for us and others. He was convinced the world regarded him as insignificant. But it was mostly him who made himself invisible and insignificant to the world.
Driving had been his last bastion of defiance to the world and ageing. He had not prepared for the inevitable change in himself.
Giving up driving had felt like giving up on himself.
Preparing for change is one lesson I have learnt from my father without him teaching me.
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