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The Elephant in the Room: Addressing Aging Issues with Family Elders, Part 2

By: Joe Delaney

Last month I shared Part 1 of my interview with Carolyn Rosenblatt, registered nurse, elder law attorney and mediator with experience navigating the turbulent waters of family issues. We discussed yellow flags, early warning signs that it’s time to discuss issues relating to an elder’s loss of independence. She also provided some insights into addressing the red flags that tell us either the elder or those around them are already in danger.

I asked Carolyn about a complex issue I have seen come up time and again in my clients’ families. Mom or Dad is still driving when you know it’s no longer safe. What do you do?

CAROLYN ROSENBLATT ON THE 5-STEP PROCESS FOR ENGAGING ELDERS IN CRISIS

The driving issue is important. I was a personal injury litigator for 27 years. So many of those accidents were caused by people who should not be driving. When the elder loses the ability to drive, it can be caused by physical issues or cognitive issues. Physical issues include diminishing vision, the ability to turn quickly to the right or to the left and decreased reaction time from stimulus to action. For example, seeing a kid running out in the street chasing a ball, noticing that’s a danger, being able to put your foot on the brake in response to the stimulus.

Cognitive issues have to do with confusion, memory loss. Driving is really complicated. It involves multiple sources of stimuli coming at you that you have to process quickly while remembering to obey the rules of the road. When you look at all that it’s easy so say a lot of older people shouldn’t be driving.

So what do we do? We’ve got Grandma who loves to drive, and nobody wants to take the car keys away from her. They don’t say anything and Grandma gets in an accident and something horrible happens. If you see dents in the car, if you think Grandma is starting to lose it, if you have any reason to think Grandma should not be driving and you don’t want to get in the car with her, don’t make the rest of the world unsafe. Sit down with Grandma and start talking.

Step 1 – Approach the Elder Alone

Approach the elder one on one. Say, “Look, this is hard … I noticed five dents in your car I didn’t see before. The bumper’s bent. Maybe you had some accidents, Grandma?” If she admits to that, tell her, “It might be time to think about what you want to do instead of driving yourself because I’m worried about you.” Make it your problem. “I’m worried about you.”

Step 2 – Bring an Ally to Help

If Grandma wants nothing to do with you for even bringing it up, you get someone Grandma loves and trusts or thinks is her favorite and you approach it again.

Step 3 – Hold an Intervention

If Grandma still resists, you gather the whole family, maybe the neighbor, the best friend. You have to have a leader of this group, someone who is tactful, polite and assertive enough with the elder. Join forces and say, “We are all concerned. We’d like to help you give up the keys.” A very important component of that is finding an alternative form of transportation. Have that information at the ready (which you’ll put into action in Step 4) or that person is going to feel very threatened.

Step 4 – Help Set Up the Transportation Alternative

The loss of control is terrifying. It cuts the elder off from everything that’s meaningful for them. That’s a bad thing for a person’s mental health, so you’ve got to put the plan into action. Hire a driver, lay out a plan for using the community van service, teach Grandma how to use Uber, etc.

Step 5 – Take the Issue to Court

Some people are still going to resist. Usually they have some kind of cognitive problem and don’t realize they’re impaired. In those cases you need to go to court for a conservatorship (similar to a guardianship). The language doesn’t directly mention the car keys, but that can be added to the standard form documents that go before the court. You don’t just do this for the car. You usually take this step in the context of a larger problem (i.e. signs of dementia).

Most people if asked as they age will give up the keys, but it’s a difficult conversation. It’s so loaded with feelings of loss of control and independence.

Takeaways

As in Part I, I took away two critical lessons from the second half of my conversation with Carolyn:

1. Families who notice an elder is no longer safe behind the wheel have a responsibility to act, for the safety of the elder, anyone who rides in the car and anyone else who could be injured in an accident.

2. It’s a bad idea to force the elder to give up the keys unless as a last resort. We must have empathy for our elders as they face the frightening reality that they are losing their independence.

As a financial lifeguard, I have seen many families in crisis because they didn’t have a plan in place for handing over everything from car keys to medical and financial records before beginning to lose their independence. I hope this information has been helpful for you and your family as you create a plan that will make the difficult times that may lie ahead easier to bear.

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