My mom won't stop driving

She's way too old and unsafe. How can I take her keys away?

Published March 26, 2012 1:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                         (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

Just over a year ago, my siblings and I (and our spouses) jointly convinced our then 86-year-old mother to move to an upscale, continuing-care community. She had become a prisoner in her home of 40-plus years, afraid to go out if inclement weather was even a remote possibility (so in effect the entire winter). She'd become frail and had balance and vision issues, and she'd had a few falls, broken her arm, dislocated her shoulder, etc. But the clincher for us was that her memory and judgment were becoming increasingly impaired. An MRI (which she resisted mightily, but finally submitted to) showed that she'd had two mini-strokes, which the neurologist felt accounted for the balance and memory problems. He did not feel she had Alzheimer's disease. I agree she's not demented, but she is impaired, and we all felt she was one accident away from a catastrophe.

So she moved, dragging her heels every inch of the way and complaining loudly that her children had forced her into a "home." The place she lives, while it does provide assisted living and skilled nursing care for residents who need those services, is primarily made up of older seniors who live independently in very nice apartments with all the amenities of an upscale apartment building plus much more in the way of classes, fitness facilities, trips, dining, transportation and other services.

Mom has confided to one of my daughters, after swearing her to secrecy, that the move was the right thing to do, but she doesn't want to ever let her kids know that she thinks that. Obviously my daughter broke her promise and told me.

Now the issue at hand is getting Mom to give up her car. She has macular degeneration with very impaired vision, but apparently not crossing the line into legal blindness. But there's no doubt she's a menace on the road, and she often forgets how to work her car, e.g., how to turn on the windshield wipers. She sees our pressing her to stop driving as yet another instance of our cruelty and desire to take away her freedom. She says she doesn't care if she dies in a car accident, and when we point out that she might hurt others, she sniffs that that's unlikely to happen.

I appreciate that what she's going through is very difficult. She was a successful businesswoman, and survived being widowed twice. I know it's hard to outlive all your friends, and to feel less capable and independent than when you were younger. She refuses any therapy to deal with her understandable frustrations and just wants to keep complaining to us. She won't participate in any of the activities where she lives, although she does have some friends with whom she shares dinner two or three times a week. She's always been a cold and negative person, but she's getting progressively nastier. Yesterday she said she wanted to be buried with her parents in a faraway state rather than our local cemetery, because she "wants to be with people she really loves and cares about." In other words not near us.

I told her that my personal belief is that after death we will be reunited with those we love who went before us, that where our physical remains reside is more a concern for our survivors, as we will be beyond caring at that point. After I said this, I realized that when I die, I would not hope to be reunited with her. That realization shook me. Not want my own mother? But she has been so unrelentingly unpleasant for the last two years, so insulting, argumentative, and just plain nasty, that I derive no pleasure from her company other than the sense that I'm being a dutiful daughter. Spiritually and emotionally this is upsetting. I appreciate any advice you can give about dealing with these feelings?

Doubting (and Guilty) Daughter

Dear Doubting and Guilty,

You're having these feelings because your mother is being mean to you. There's nothing strange about that. Who wants to be reunited with somebody who's really mean?

You love your mother and she's being mean to you. That's why you feel upset.

When parents get old, sometimes they get nasty. That's true a lot. It's tough. It is. This is normal. When people are nasty to us, we have nasty thoughts about them. It's not nice but it's normal.

You're normal. This is what it's like to see your mother grow old. This is exactly what it's like. Ideally, it makes you grow; it gives you wisdom; it shows you how you can have compassion and withstand hurt and express love from the depths of your hurt feelings. You sound like you are dealing with it in a very compassionate and caring way.

There's no getting around it: It's a contradiction. You love your mother and she's being mean to you, so you feel both love and anger. It's uncomfortable to feel both at the same time.

You don't have to go through this alone. Just because your mother won't use psychotherapy as an aid doesn't mean you can't. In fact, unless you have a guru or a best friend who's a guru, or a best friend who's a psychotherapist, it's about your best bet for getting through this in a positive way.

So get yourself a therapist and deal with this stuff there.

A judge had to take my dad's license. He wasn't about to give it up. But he sideswiped some parked cars and that did it. So I suggest you look into what can be done to pry your mom's license out of her perhaps shaky but determined grip. The courts can do it. In my dad's case, it helped that he'd sideswiped those cars.'s Ron Kauffman has a good take on this.

"In some states," he says, "physicians can send a letter to the state voicing concerns and suggesting that the driver, mom, be tested for safety as a licensed driver." He goes on to note that South Florida, in particular, has a process set up specifically to deal with this issue. Which is a good thing. I grew up down in South Florida. There are so many old people driving around, it's a real concern. In fact, my dad wasn't in South Florida when his license was taken away, but pretty much anywhere lots of people retire, you're probably going to find that state agencies have tried to come up with solutions to this problem.

The New York Times blog the New Old Age also has good tips, and generously links to more resources on

This blog comment in particular strikes me as an ideal way to work it. Your mother may not be as reasonable as this person's mother was, but the part about talking about other people she knows and what they have done makes sense. Perhaps her friends can influence her.

And if you have to be devious, filing down her key so it no longer works in the car may be an ethically questionable but necessary step. Far be it from me to make the call on that. If all else fails, you may need to resort to cunning tactics.

Lawyers, trained to look at situations from a rational perspective, can sometimes come up with surprisingly detached points of view. In response to this blog post on Concurring Opinions on a University of Iowa Legal Studies paper titled"The Public Choice of Driving Regulations," one commenter takes a bracing yet strangely sensible if somewhat chilly view:

"If an older driver routinely destroys $40,000 BMWs through reckless driving, but he is a billionaire who can pay for all of the damage he causes, there is no problem keeping him on the road. The poor driver won’t be able to afford this. The rich driver will, but he will be paying a lot for that privilege. The complication is that our tort system is undercompensatory for at least some types of personal injury. Compensating for destroying a BMW is easy, compensating for killing a pedestrian is hard."


So, to sum up, I'd break your problem down into two areas. One is practical and involves learning as much as you can, struggling to be consistent and patient and make the best decisions you can. It's administrative and managerial. It requires you to put your feelings aside.

The other is about you; it's more emotional and spiritual. It requires you to put your feelings front and center. For that, I suggest you call upon whatever emotional and spiritual resources you can locate. Accept that you are being faced with a difficult change that's going to tax you emotionally, and take steps to take care of yourself.

There is some overlap between the practical and the emotional. For instance, by bonding with others who have aging parents you can learn practical tips and also get the benefit of shared experiences.

It does help to know that many others are going through this, or have gone through this, or will go through this.

You're not alone. What you're feeling is natural.

By Cary Tennis

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