Difficult conversation: when to give up the car keys

Summer accident sparks upcoming forum on senior driving safety

Louise Freedman recently carried her driver's license into the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and laid it on the counter.

"There was a man sitting behind the desk and I said to him, 'I don't want to drive any more,' and I handed my license to him," said Freedman, a Peninsula resident who is in her late 80s. "That was that. I'd put a lot of thought into it."

Freedman's decision followed a similar one by her husband Bill, a retired physician, about two years earlier. At the age of 93 he allowed his license to lapse.

"I did it for the safety of others, because I might possibly hurt someone by not being aware enough," Bill Freedman said. "I recognize that at my age, things like that can happen."

The couple's four daughters, who all live in the area and had encouraged their parents to stop driving, now share — along with their in-home caregiver — the job of driving them wherever they need to go.

The Freedmans and others who have chosen to stop driving for safety reasons will be honored Thursday, Oct. 23, at a free, public forum titled "Shifting Gears: When to Stop Driving and How to Move Forward."

The forum, sponsored by the senior services agency Avenidas, was sparked by a July 31 Palo Alto accident in which a driver in his 90s, attempting to parallel-park, accidentally accelerated onto the sidewalk outside the University Cafe. Five people were injured, one critically, and two required surgery.

No charges have been filed against the driver, a San Jose resident, but police referred him for an emergency re-examination with the Department of Motor Vehicles in which he had five days to pass a driving test or face suspension of his license. State law protects the driver's privacy as to the outcome, police said.

On the day of the accident, Avenidas social worker Paula Wolfson was in her Bryant Street office, just around the corner from the cafe. She and other staff members ran to the scene, and one of them helped attend to the injured, she said.

"The accident motivated me to start thinking about all the different dynamics in the decision to stop driving if one is not a safe driver," Wolfson said. "Accidents can happen to any of us, but why not look at what's preventable?"

A decision to stop driving is about an individual's fitness to drive, regardless of age, said Wolfson, who frequently counsels seniors and their adult children grappling with driving issues.

A common piece of advice is the "40/70 rule" — that adult children reaching 40 should raise the topic with parents approaching 70, she said. But Wolfson believes the discussions should begin even earlier.

Families should consider agreeing on "advanced driving directives" just as they discuss and formalize plans for health care or finances in the event of incapacitation.

"If we do it with health care and finances because we worry about being incompetent at some time and wanting to protect our loved ones, it makes sense for driving, too," Wolfson said. "We can't hurt other people with our health care decisions, but driving decision-making is significant and a car is a lethal weapon."

With an increasing population of older drivers locally, "there needs to be a cultural attitude change, and everybody needs to do this," Wolfson said. "We so easily embraced the 'Friends don't let friends drive drunk' campaign. If we take away the word 'drunk,' we need to replace it with something else."

Eighty-seven-year-old Menlo Park resident George, who asked that his last name not be disclosed, climbs into his Ford Explorer every morning to drive to a standing 7 a.m. breakfast at the home of his adopted daughter in San Carlos.

George also drives regularly to art and physical-education classes in Redwood City and to watch tennis matches at several local venues.

"It would be like I'm in jail if I can't drive," said George, a retired business owner who is considering moving to an assisted-living facility to be closer to the adopted daughter, Amy Weishaar.

"But I'm thinking ... the worst thing that could happen to me is to hit somebody or hurt them."

George recently got a near-perfect score on a written DMV renewal test, extending his license into his 90s. He was not required to take a behind-the-wheel test.

"George thinks he drives OK, and he does drive OK, but he's slower," Weishaar said.

Palo Alto Police Lt. Zach Perron said accidents across the country, including the July 31 incident in Palo Alto, "in which there've been serious-injury collisions as a result of people who shouldn't be driving any more, have created a ripe environment" for conversations about senior driving safety.

"You can be the most with-it, sharp person, but sometimes you lose just a little bit," Perron said. "It doesn't mean you shouldn't be driving, but it does mean you should be having the conversations with people who know you and can judge your abilities, your mental acuity, your reaction times and things like that. It's not an easy conversation for adult children to have with their parents."

In Palo Alto, police make referrals to the DMV for re-testing about once a month, Perron said.

"It's an officer filling out a form and saying, 'We have concerns about that person's ability to safely drive their vehicle.' It requires them to go back to the DMV and basically pass a driving test in order to retain their license.

"It's not a common occurrence," Perron said. "The age of the driver is not determinative whatsoever."

At Avenidas, Wolfson said, "People worry about sinking into severe depression if they can no longer drive. Our job is to provide resources so that does not happen."

Speakers and panelists at the Oct. 23 forum will include Wolfson; Rosemary Robles of the DMV; mediation specialist Jack Hamilton of Learn2Resolve; neuropsychologist Sam Gontkovsky of Cognitive Therapeutics; transportation specialist Phil Endliss of Avenidas; City of Palo Alto police and fire officials; Elizabeth Edgerly, chief program officer of Alzheimer's Association; and Barbara Kalt, director of Rosener House.

The event, which will be from 3 to 5 p.m. at 450 Bryant St. in Palo Alto, is free and open to the public, but reservations are required. To reserve, call 650-289-5400.

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Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 13, 2014 at 3:18 pm

In some states, if you turn in your license you aren't allowed to vote.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 13, 2014 at 5:04 pm

Giving up the keys and giving up a license are two different scenarios.

Giving up the keys enables a senior to keep the ownership of a car to allow a visiting relative to have a vehicle as their disposal, allow a grandchild who doesn't own a car have the opportunity of using it perhaps to drive the grandparent where they need to go and other similar reasons.

Giving up a license prevents car ownership and/or taxing and insuring the vehicle (presumably) but also takes away a valid id so it would need to be replaced.

I know one senior who no longer drives but still keeps their license and vehicle for convenience. I cannot give this senior a ride due to the fact that my car is too difficult for my friend to climb in or out. I can however drive their car to help with appointments, etc.

This article does not properly discuss the pros and cons. Of course there comes a time when a senior can decide that it is not safe for them to drive. There is a lot more that needs to be thought through after that decision.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 13, 2014 at 6:36 pm

@Resident, all good observations. I guess that's what the October 23 forum is about. This article says the forum is sponsored by Avenidas but does not explicitly say the location will be at Avenidas. Takes some digging to find it on the Avenidas website.

Also looks like a typo in the dateline of this article -- "October 3, 2014."

Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Oct 13, 2014 at 9:53 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

To my knowledge much of what resident said is just wrong.

My mom turned in her license two years ago. Yes it was a difficult conversation and evolved over several months.

She has a senior id card as I do and owns her car with insurance for other drivers. And she can vote.

If you are unsure of what to expect or are a son or daughter dealing with a parent who should no longer drive, I think the Avenidas event will be helpful.

2 people like this
Posted by muttiallen
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 14, 2014 at 11:24 am

muttiallen is a registered user.

It's also possible to give up driving in stages. My mother, age 88, decided not to drive at night, on the freeway, or far away. She still drives in her town to the grocery store, to church, to get her hair done. And that works for our family.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 14, 2014 at 12:27 pm


The information I mention was given to me by a senior who has stopped driving. The decision made by my friend was done after the family looked into the best way to handle the situation.

I know that this was not an easy decision particularly due to the fact that my friend is unable to walk without the aid of a walking frame and feels that buses would not be a useful solution for transportation. The fact that my friend is unable to get into other vehicles, my own car for example, shows that it is a frighteningly difficult situation to be in.

Like this comment
Posted by Gunn mom
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Oct 14, 2014 at 1:58 pm

I have gone through this with my parents. Usually we, as children, rarely ride along when our parents drive so are only relying on their report and lack of incidents to make our judgements. We, however, have no measure of the near misses in their wake.

Nobody wants to choose something that makes their life more difficult. Giving up driving makes the senior and children's life less convenient and more complicated. The key is to weigh those inconveniences against the worst case scenario. I also considered what fault would be mine if my parents were in a serious accident while I pondered and avoided confronting them about their diminishing abilities. If a concerned child did not act should they be culpable? Obviously not legally but psychologically guilty? Perhaps the over 70 driver must bring in a unanimous endorsement form for renewal signed by three close associates who had ridden with them in the last month. Is there an anonymous medical or dmv reporting line?

Again our society has evolved in such a way that the nuclear and extended family is far flung so the transportation needs are not met by the younger generation.

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 14, 2014 at 3:59 pm

Roadrunners service - I believe this is for medical appointments, which usually become frequent with elderly.
It would help if there were high quality taxi service around here - but there isn't.
What type of car can the friend not get in/out of? What did she have before (her own car)?

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 14, 2014 at 5:08 pm

My elderly friend is unable to get into an SUV which is too high and sports cars which are too low to get out of. In an emergency, I expect a couple of shoves and pulls might work, but for everyday rides, I respect my friend's dignity. A regular car with a couple of handles in the right places makes getting in and out much easier for self help.

1 person likes this
Posted by Disabled But Not Dead
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2014 at 8:40 pm

My then 85-year-old mother was surprised when her children were all relieved when she decided to stop driving on her own.

They and my own children have been supportive and helpful when I stopped driving on my own, due to medical reasons-at 58! In addition to Roadrunners, Avenidas has a service, there is Outreach in Santa Clara County, Rediwheels in San Mateo County. All the public buses (half price)and shuttles (all free)(Marguerite, Palo Alto's, and Menlo Park's) have kneeling buses.

No one got hurt, and the curbstones stopped suffering. I have no trouble voting, I just can't drive people to the polls anymore.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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