Respecting Our Elderly Parents

"R-E-S-P-E-C-T" Aretha Franklin spells it out. Call it respect or call it dignity. If only my mother had been approached that way. Here's what happened: some family members decided it was time for my mother to stop driving. True, she is in her late eighties, hasn't been in the best of health, and is increasingly forgetful. Nevertheless, she is still a mentally and emotionally competent adult with a current driver's license and unblemished driving record. She deserved to be included in this life-altering decision.

It's not easy for anyone when the time to put away the car keys is reached: the time when he or she has to relinquish that great worldwide symbol of independence -- driving a car. It happens for some at earlier ages than for others. Sight starts to fail and driving at night becomes increasing difficult. Reflexes slow and the foot moves slower from the gas to the brake. Medications cause drowsiness. Arthritis makes it hard to turn the neck.

Even if your aging friend or relative has never had an accident, never dinged the car, never even gotten a ticket, the time will still come when driving is no longer safe. But the loss is so much greater than just needing to find another form of transportation to the grocery store or the doctor appointment. Losing the keys to the car means the elder needs to be taken care of; the parent or grandparent becomes the child in a very real sense. But to be treated like a child, as in my mother's case, is something else entirely!

My well-meaning family members went behind my mother's back and made her car "disappear," sending it to the shop for fabricated "repairs." My mother was so upset to discover her car was MIA that she tried to get an old farm truck going and wound up backing into a tree. So the ruse of the missing car did far more damage than a simple face-to-face conversation would have done.

Why didn't the family sit down with her and say, "We think the time has come for you to stop driving. We are concerned for your safety. We love you. We don't want you to get hurt. We don't want anyone else to get hurt." Why is it so difficult to have a considerate and compassionate talk, stating the facts in a way that acknowledges the parent is still an adult, not a child to be tricked?

More people dread the "taking away the keys" conversation than discussing funeral arrangements! Have we become so deficient in our communication skills that we would rather have an email sent stating "your license has been revoked" than holding a hand, looking into a wrinkled face and saying we care so much about you that we are worried?

We must not treat people who are still mentally competent like children. It is disempowering, to say the least, and certainly disrespectful to those who spent decades of their lives taking care of us. Whatever happened to the concept of elders as wise ones, as mentors, as people of intrinsic value? Even if Grandma has crumpled the fender of her car on her mail box and just doesn't know how it jumped in front of her car, she is still someone to be treated with consideration and understanding, with sensitivity and respect. Perhaps it is time to talk to her about giving up driving, but how it's done is critical.

So, first, talk to your elder in a way that lets them know they are a competent adult, still worthy of your love and respect. It can't hurt, and it might just solve the problem. I dearly wish that it would have happened that way with my mother.

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