Since he lost his license, my father seems to have lost all interest in life. What can I do?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My father had several close calls and failed the driving test multiple times before he finally accepted that he couldn't drive anymore. The problem is, he hasn't really accepted it: Two months after losing his license, he still gripes about the unfairness of it all, and he's told me more than once that without a car, he might as well be dead. It isn't as if his life is empty; he has a number of friends and lives near a senior center. He could walk places or take the bus, and I've offered to drive him, but he uses his lack of wheels as an excuse for staying home. What's going on?

Expert Answer

Jonathan Rosenfeld is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Francisco.

It isn't uncommon for elderly people to lapse into depression when they can no longer drive, and it sounds like that's what's going on with your father.

If you can consider the situation from your father's perspective, you'll be less baffled by his behavior and better able to help. For your father, as for many people, driving is more than just a means of transportation. In modern society, driving represents freedom, autonomy, and independence -- qualities of life that your father sees slipping away as he grows older. Giving up the keys is another loss at a time of life that's filled with many losses. Older people have often described the cessation of driving as a death, one that makes them relive the passing of close friends and relatives.

As with other major losses, your father needs time to grieve, and that is likely what he is doing now. Don't be afraid to talk to him directly about what is going on. Try not to argue with him about how he's feeling or urge him to feel differently; instead, simply listen to what he has to say. He may need to gripe -- even to rant a little -- as he comes to terms with his new circumstances. He may also need to stay home for a while and lick his wounds. It's common for older people to feel shame at the loss of their car keys, which they can't help but see as a public indictment of their competence.

While it's normal for someone to grieve under these circumstances, if your dad's depression persists, he may need to see a therapist. His physician can provide referrals. Watch for other signs of depression, including inability to sleep, sleeping too much, or gaining or losing weight.

You can also support your father logistically. You can help him figure out his public transportation options and perhaps ride the bus with him the first few times if he's apprehensive. Depending on where he lives, other transportation alternatives for seniors are likely available; your local senior center is a good place to find out. Figure out which taxi service in your area is most reliable, and make sure your father has the phone numbers. Encourage him to walk to nearby stores and restaurants, and join him when you can.

Probably the most important way you can help your father, though, is by reminding him of his sense of purpose in life. Encourage him to develop an interest that he's never had a chance to pursue, for example, or find out about volunteer opportunities that might interest him. Invite him to join you and your family on outings and vacations if possible. Seeing that he still has a vital role to play in the world will help your father adjust to his new life without a car.