Boomers struggle with easing aging parents out of that all important driver's seat


BOSTON -- "Well, I'm off; wish me luck," says my fellow traveler as he rolls his carry-on bag down the aisle and out of the plane. "I'll come back with the car keys or on them," he adds, an Odyssean touch as he disappears into the terminal.

We have flown together up the fogbound East Coast to the town that this man grew up in and that his parents still call home. Sometime between the long-delayed liftoff and landing, he described the classical task set before him this weekend: to convince, to urge or, if necessary, to order his 83-year-old father to give up his place in the driver's seat.

This is what has happened over the past year. His father's lingering pride has come into conflict with his failing eyesight. One car accident escalated into the next until finally he drove over the curb and into a neighbor's trash barrels. Next time, the family worries, it could be a neighbor's child.

The task of key removal has fallen to this eldest son, a 56-year-old manager, by birth order and default. His mother had said, "I can't talk to him about it." His brother had demurred, "He listens to you best." So the manager bought a ticket and took on the job that looms as an unexpected and unwelcome filial chore.

What was on this son's mind as we circled over Providence en route to the last roundup of the old man's Taurus? The middle-aged son was remembering the time, 40 years ago, when this dad taught him how to drive.

They headed for an empty supermarket parking lot. The father handed over the keys, the sweaty-palmed son grabbed the shift. The father patiently taught him to drive, stop, start, park, clutch in and out. The older man gave the younger his wheels.

It was a rite of passage to independence that this son repeated with his own sons -- with a car that had an automatic transmission and a teacher with less patience. Now it has come to this, he said uneasily, a much less welcome rite of return passage.

As we part company it occurs to me that my fellow traveler has not embarked on this route alone. The manager is part of a much less-recognized sandwich generation: the triple-decker generation. The middle-aged children of elderly parents, the 50- and 60-something children of 80- and 90-something parents.

These days, I meet more and more people who are the filling between adult children and aged parents. Their emptying and empty nests are bursting -- surprisingly -- with worries about parents.

I hear friends with fledgling grandchildren focused on their own fading parents. I hear them saying, we have raised our children and now we are -- what is the right word? -- lowering our mothers and fathers.

Many of our parents have outlived their own parents by a decade or two. If the baby boomers are unprepared for Social Security they will be even less prepared for providing this emotional support.

There is no Dr. Spock for the middle-aged and young-old children of elderly parents. There is nothing that sets out for us what to expect dealing with the stages of 70s, 80s, 90s.

We don't even have a language for that process by which we try to take care of aging parents, to watch out for them and yet respect their independence. We have few ways of thinking about whether it is our right and when it is our responsibility to ease them out of their driver's seat.

In raising children, we are told, the pendulum swings between permissiveness and authoritarianism. Between exercising too much or too little control. But what about relating to our elders? How do we avoid being overbearing or neglectful? When does our respect for their autonomy leave them in the lurch? When does care-taking take away their own power? The gears do not mesh easily.

Add to that the fact that the triple-decker generation is now in the penumbra of its own old age. We are now caring for our elders while looking around a corner of two or three decades at what we, too, would want. And what we will do.

For my fellow traveler the car keys are a real problem, but also a symbol. With luck, his father will give him another driver's lesson and show him how to navigate this twist in the road with grace and good sense -- as a passenger.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/03/98

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