Why does my father refuse to sell his car after having his license pulled by the DMV?

3 answers | Last updated: Dec 28, 2012
A fellow caregiver asked...

The Department of Motor Vehicles refused to renew my father's driver's license because his eyesight has become so bad, and at 93, he seems to accept the fact that he'll never drive again. I offered to sell his car for him, because he has to pay to park it, but he declined the offer. When I later offered again, he exploded -- this from a man who never raises his voice! Can you explain what's going on?

Expert Answers

David Solie is an author, educator, speaker, and thought leader in geriatric and intergenerational communication. His book How to Say It to Seniors: Closing the Communication Gap With Our Elders is a landmark text that has been read and reread by legions of baby boomers searching for a better approach to working with their parents and other older adults.

People face an unimaginable number of losses as they age -- including the loss of their closest friends and relatives, their physical vitality, and their independence. It's understandable that, confronted with so much loss, elderly people often try to hold tight to the areas of life where they still maintain some control.

It seems obvious that your father's car has important symbolic value for him. Put yourself in his place for just a moment: Imagine being told that you will never drive again -- ever. The finality of such a notion is staggering -- and difficult for a younger person to grasp. As middle-aged adults, we still have a future stretching before us. For example, we may think, I can't afford to travel to Africa now, but someday I may be able to go. Even if we end up dropping dead next week, our ignorance of this fate allows us to view time and ourselves in an expansive and optimistic way.

In contrast, as his friends die and his eyesight fails, your father faces constant reminders that his time is limited and his opportunities are diminishing every day. His car represents a link to the days when he could come and go as he pleased. It may remind him of heading off to work in the morning or taking his family to the beach. Even if he can't use it, its mere presence may give him a sense of possibility and freedom.

Holding on to the car is also a way to maintain a measure of control in a world that feels as if it's quickly slipping away (indeed, as he loses his eyesight, his world is literally disappearing). He can no longer drive, but he can still make decisions about a few things, and this is one of them. The car is a sort of statement, then, that your father still has weight and presence in the world.

My advice is to allow your father to keep his car until he tells you he's ready to give it up. Your intentions are good, but you can best support him in this challenging period of life by helping him maintain as much control and independence as possible, even if his decisions don't always seem logical to you.

This is also a time when you can help him explore and and develop his legacy since legacy building is an important task that all elderly people face. His determination to keep his car probably means that driving and mobility play a role in that legacy and could be a rich area of exploration. Ask him about his car, his commute to work, and the various road trips you took as a family, for example. By assisting him in creating his legacy you'll enrich his precious final years.

Community Answers

Windsweptgp answered...
The car can be more than a statement of independence. My father doesn't drive but still owns his car so that he can ask others - friends, family, neighbors, caretakers, to drive him around. Also, he views it as a means to get to safety. In an emergency, he can find someone near by to evacuate him and my mother without waiting for family to travel from the next town.

Slipjig answered...

Or as in the case of my own father, he wants to keep the car because he intends to drive it, license or not.