A Tough Decision


Bruce Sundlun picking up his new Buick Lucerne, May 2007

Former Rhode Island Governor Bruce Sundlun, my father-in-law,  took a big step yesterday.   After driving since the Great Depression, he gave up his driver’s license.   For a man who turns 90 this coming winter, it wasn’t easy….for him or us.   This came after a long period of pleading from his family,  incidents that resulted in police action, reports in the Providence Journal detailing his lack of driving prowess, and ultimately, some self-reflection.    We are extremely proud of his decision to turn over his license to the Rhode Island DMV.  We also know how difficult it can be for a family with an older driver. 

What wasn’t reported in the news stories about my father-in-law’s driving is that we, his family, had been trying to persuade him to give up driving for some time.   Most of us refused to drive with him, but that didn’t work.  He still wouldn’t give it up.   Over time he relinquished the controls and became a passenger, mostly because the option was going out by himself and following behind….way behind!  

Whenever we broached the subject of his driving, the Governor’s response was always the same ” I’m a good driver!” he would growl.    “I’ve been trained to drive by the FBI,  the CIA and the DEA.”     He didn’t seem the least bit phased when we countered with the fact that this training occured when Truman was president!     No, his argument often fell on deaf ears, especially when he backed into my brother-in-law’s car in his driveway.

This is a man who survived being shot down by the Nazis during World War II, won the governor’s race after two defeats, faced the anger of customers whose troubled banks he shut down, and beat cancer.   The man who fought hard against the naysayers to bring a first class airport to Providence wasn’t going to give up driving just  because we asked him to.

In fact, two years ago he needed a new car and liked our car and wanted one exactly like it.   He wanted it to look sporty, and have all the options, namely Onstar so he wouldn’t have to use a cell phone while driving.  Thank goodness for that.   We wisely talked him out of getting a navigation screen, since the last thing my father-in-law needed was a monitor full of colorful maps to distract him from keeping his eyes on the road.   

I had to drive his car last year and Kara and I were stunned by the high mileage.  He drove often and everywhere.  He came to Hartford to visit us, all around the state for fundraisers and charity events, to his alma mater Williams College for a reunion, Boston to visit one of his granddaughters and New York City for an event.    He was also driving to his office at URI every day.

My father-in-law kept driving for a number of reasons, including peer pressure.  He has friends who still drive….friends who are older than he is!   Just last summer, over lunch Kara and I were trying to persuade Bruce to give up driving when his 90 year old friend came over.   Here is how the conversation went:

                                    Bruce:   “How are you, my dear?”

                                   Friend:   “I’ve had a dreadful day.  I had to drive my grandson to the train station near URI, and then take another to the airport and then drive to Providence for an errand and back to Newport.”    

She didn’t exactly help our cause.   We should point out  he also has a 92 year old friend who still drives.

I think my father-in-law should use his experience to help others.  The Rhode Island DMV should put him in a PSA explaining how people can help with a loved one who should no longer drive.

 The cities of Providence and Hartford should build housing for seniors downtown,  within walking distance to stores, services, and hospitals.    It might make giving up a driver’s license less traumatic.  

This morning Kara said “I am so proud of my Dad.”  We all are.

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9 replies »

  1. I am very proud of his decision to stop driving too. It must have been very hard for him to come to this decision. What he may not realize his that he setting a fine example for others in the same situation.


  2. That’s wonderful! Good for him! I have a story I’d like to share with you. Five years ago, after my husband’s grandfather passed away, his grandmother came to live with us. She was 87 at the time, and a real spitfire. She had been living in Florida for many years, had a couple of fender benders, as well as a medical condition. She “gave up” driving a few years earlier, allowing her husband to do all the driving. When she moved in with us, we told her that she didn’t need the added expense of car taxes when she never even drove the car. We told her that when she needed a ride, we would drive her to where she needed to go. She agreed, so we sold the car for her, and gave her the money.

    One day, a few years later, my husband drove her to CVS. On her way out, she noticed a police officer. She walked right over to the cop and said, “My grandson won’t let me drive…he sold my car”. She was being “cute”, and flirting with him. The officer looked over at my husband, and without missing a beat, he said “Good for you! I wish there were more grandsons out there like you!”

    She’ll be 93 next weekend, still jokes about not having a car, and tells the story about the police officer………but she always leaves out his comment :)!!!


  3. Yes, the decision to give up one’s license is indeed courageous. And wise.

    As a gerontologist, I know that older adults are more afraid of losing their independence than they are of illness. Our environment is not supportive of “aging in place.” We need our cars! And our mass transit is laughable. Besides, if older adults DO live near a bus stop, they have to be able to withstand the cold or heat to wait for the bus, or they have to manuveur through ice and snow to get to the stop.

    A complicating factor for many older adults is the issue of dementia. You would be horrified to learn how many people who can’t find their way around the grocery store still drive.

    Portland, ME has had the “Independent Transportation Network” in place for years. It’s run by very few paid staff and mostly volunteers and was initially funded by a grant and is now funded by businesses, churches, doctors, etc., with an inexpensive yearly fee and small charge per ride.

    The Central CT area had the opportunity to develop this system. It seems to have faded away. The issue of unsafe drivers on the road will only increase with the aging of the baby boomers. We need a Central CT ITN.

    Without social contact, depression develops. Dial-A-Ride gives preference to medical visits, as it should. But funding may be cut for that also. Just think….what if you had to ask people to take you for a hair cut? Or to buy a greeting card? Or to pick up some milk for coffee?

    You can tell that this


  4. Giving up driving is indeed a very difficult thing to go through with an aging parent. I remember my mother fighting tooth and nail to keep her “independence”. It didn’t help when she’d point out that her friend Thelma was still driving – “and she was 90!” I had to delicately suggest that “perhaps Thelma shouldn’t be driving either” but as I recall that comment wasn’t well received. My mother’s medical issues pretty much forced the issue eventually and she did give it up voluntarily. I was so very proud of her because I knew how hard that was for her and how much her pride was hurting — yet she knew it was truly the right thing to do.


  5. Giving up your independence is always difficult and giving up your license is one of the most difficult losses of freedom to deal with.

    My mother gave up driving at 88 after much thoughtful discussion and, as it turned out, she totally enjoyed Dial A Ride once she became used to it. She liked the social time on the bus (this was a very very independent woman), enjoyed the many places she was able to visit and not worry about driving, insurance, gas, etc.

    Congratulations to Bruce, a wise decision and a great role model for his family.

    And.. the Providence Journal should find some real news to report.


  6. Congrats! Gov. Sundlan made the best decision for all. For many years my family tried to pursuade my grandfather to surrender his license. He knew he was unable to drive at night and his driving skills were diminishing, but he insisted on being independent. He routinely drove from the shore to Wallingford to work and made his regular stops – the grocery store, drug store. In 1995, (at 88 years old) he pulled out of our store’s parking lot to get gas for his car when he was hit by oncoming traffic. He was hospitalized for 8 months and he never came home. I wish we had been successful in convincing him to stop driving. While I miss him terribly, I’m grateful the other driver was uninjured and that my grandmother was not in the car with him.


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