Taking the Keys Away

After the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market tragedy, I felt sad for Russell Weller, as he had to live and sleep burdened by horrific deaths. In 2006, he was convicted of ten counts of manslaughter. Though he did not serve prison time, he lived in a personal prison for the remainder of his life as a recluse, hunkered in is home with the venetian blinds permanently closed. He died in December 2010 at the age of ninety-three, more than seven years after the accident.

My family was angry with Russell Weller while I was angry with his family – they did not take the keys away from him despite the fact that he had a history of auto accidents (fortunately none involved any fatalities or serious injuries) I found myself asking time and time again, Why did Russell Weller fail to see that he was no longer capable of driving?

The answer: independence.

As Ironic as this statement may sound, and it has taken me almost nine years to come to this realization, it isn’t so easy to take the keys away. I’ve come to this conclusion through my work as a wellness nurse with the aging population.

Inevitably, the topic of driving is central to the conversations I have with   the residents of the independent facilities in which I visit. During my assessments, I ask them if they still drive, if they have any concerns about their driving, if they have a history of auto accidents, and if they are taking any narcotics or other medications that could impair their ability to concentrate.

Even after I shared the tragic story of the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market accident with a particularly worrisome resident, who happened to be taking narcotics for chronic pain, she said, “I’m fine. In the sixty-years I’ve been driving, I’ve never been in an accident. My doctor says it’s okay to drive.”

I shared my concerns with the manager of the property and with other wellness nurses. But my role is to strongly encourage rather than prescribe. I’m not supposed to call physicians or family members without permission from the residents. I must trust that their physicians will speak with their patients, and advise them that they should have a thorough medical exam to assess their ability to continue driving. I must trust that family members will act on the best interest of their parents or grandparents, if need be, and take the keys away.

I’d exhale a sigh of much needed relief when I arrived each Tuesday to visit this resident, seeing that she indeed made it another week without either injuring or killing herself, or someone else.

You can breathe now – she no longer drives. Her family stepped in, took the car. Sold it.

But what happens once we take the keys away? How will the no-longer-able-to-drive get to the grocery store or to medical appointments? What do they do if they simply want to get out of the house to visit with a friend for lunch or do volunteer work? Do we simply take the keys then drive away in our own cars, indulging in selfish freedom? If we insist on taking the keys away from our elders, shouldn’t we also have in place a workable transportation plan?

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