Daily Archives: October 13, 2009

Driving and the Elderly



A short history of my mother and the American automobile:

My grandfather bought a Model T Ford in 1920 for $500.   Mama learned to drive in that car at a time when driver’s licenses were not required in Kentucky.    About the only other thing I know about that car, was that it had trouble getting up over the steep hills in the western part of the state, where they lived.  One Sunday night after church, she, her dad and the preacher were on their way back home when the car couldn’t make it up over the hill.  She and the preacher got out and pushed it over (this seemed to have been a common occurrence).  After the preacher jumped back in, her dad kept going and she got left behind.  When she’d tell me this story, I’d always ask if it was dark, or was it cold or did she walk all the way back home.  Her answer was always the same:  “All I remember is how mad I was that he could forget me.”



This photograph was taken after she went to California in 1938. She had lived in Texas for a year in order to file for divorce from her first husband.  He had left Kentucky to  find work, then wrote back that he didn’t want to be married anymore.  After the divorce, she went by bus to California to work in her favorite uncle’s grocery store in Los Angeles, where she met my father.



They married and moved to his home state of Oklahoma.  The picture to the right was taken in 1957  on a trip back to Kentucky to visit her family.

When I was a little girl, my dad got a pickup truck. (That is an amazing story in itself. Daddy was a gregarious sort, and one day he was stopped at a traffic light when he notice the vehicle next to him was a pickup with 3 or 4 little boys in the back. He called over to the driver: “Want to trade for a car and get those kids out of the back of that truck?” Well, they pulled over and traded. One of those little boys grew up and married one of my best friends. Tulsa was smaller then than it is now, but that’s still a pretty amazing story to me.)

So, he bought another car and my mother had something to drive too. She drove us to church, to the grocery store, the dime store, the big Sears store in town. She picked up neighborhood children and took them to Sunday School or Vacation Bible School. Almost every weekend, she’d take my friend Carol and me to the movies in Tulsa, or to McClure’s Park to go swimming. Once, when I was 8, just she and I drove back to Arkansas to visit her oldest sister in Jonesboro. My dad and brother started their own construction company and were gone a lot. She was pretty independent.

In fact, many times she drove by herself to visit us in Texas, even into her early 80’s.

Then when she was in her late 80’s my sister and I began getting very concerned.  On a hourlong drive to my brother’s (a route she was very familiar with), she got lost.  Also,  I had seen her cross the shopping center parking lot without even looking for oncoming cars, which was very unlike her. Then an old friend called and said that they had been going to lunch one day and my mother ran a red light. Didn’t even look.

So we knew something had to be done. We didn’t want to tell her to quit driving but we knew that it was no longer safe. Even though most of the time she only drove a couple of blocks to the grocery store and several of her favorite restaurants, it was time for her to quit driving.   Her neighborhood was full of small children. We couldn’t live with it if something tragic happened and we knew that she wouldn’t be able to, either.

Always very practical, she had said for years that if a person lived long enough, they would have to quit driving at some point and she said she knew that day would come for her, too. Holding onto that, we had a very painful family meeting and told her as gently as we could. She didn’t really argue, but it was obvious that she wasn’t happy about it. Would anyone be? But she complied.

She didn’t have the Alzheimer’s diagnosis yet, but one clue that there was something wrong with her thinking process was that she fretted over the decision. Life without a car was going to be difficult for an independent person.  There wasn’t an easy solution because her small town didn’t have any public transportation, not even taxis. No bus for senior citizens. But my sister lived nearby and took her to the grocery store, hair salon, doctor’s office and restaurants.

Of course it was absolutely necessary, but it was hard. Probably harder than I thought it would be. Daddy had quit driving at 75 because he had a stroke, and I don’t remember him fussing about it. But he stayed mentally sharp until his death.

An uncle had kept driving until he was around 90. Twice he backed through his garage door. Then a woman followed him home one evening (he had agreed not to drive at night), and told his daughter that he’d been driving on the wrong side of the road. So, my cousin had to take the car.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’m in my mid-50’s and not as healthy as my mother was at my age. How long can I drive safely?

Recently, a tragedy occurred to the pastor and his wife at my friend’s church. The pastor’s wife, a very sweet woman, had had a brain tumor a few years ago, and had been having  memory problems. A few weeks ago, after taking someone home from church, she forgot to turn off the ignition after parking her car in the garage. Both she and her husband were asphyxiated. Their bodies were  found when they didn’t show up for church that night. The car was still running.

May the good Lord help Joe and me when the time comes to quit driving. And may our children have the courage and compassion to make the decision, if we can’t make it ourselves.

I hope we can.


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