The drive for independence
ROBERT Bales walks slowly along MacCorkle Avenue. Late afternoon traffic whisks by as Charleston’s workers, freed from their confines, hurry home, to the grocery store, the hairdresser, happy hour. ...
Bales, 87, moves closer to his apartment door and farther from the little red Isuzu pickup parked nearby. It sits there waiting for him, but he isn’t driving anywhere.
He has no license.
Bales was retested after a minor accident on a foggy, rainy night. The parallel parking proved to be a little much.
“The instructor said, ‘How long you been driving?’ I said, ‘71 years,’ and he said, ‘Well, that’s long enough,’” Bales recalls.
That was a year ago, and the loss of freedom is eating at Robert Bales.
“I don’t want to hurt nobody,” he says. “But I would like to have my license. I’m not gonna do a whole lot of driving — just to the doctor or post office.”
Bales’ wife shuttles him where he needs to be, but the idea of being dependent doesn’t sit well with a man who served in World War II, who put in 30 years with the railroad, who’s driven all over the world.
“I’ve worked hard, been a good man,” he says, turning emotional over the hopelessness of the topic. The mention of his children, living out of state, turns his eyes moist.
“They tell me not to worry so much about it ... but I need it bad.”
‘I’ve been driving longer than he’s been alive’
As the population of West Virginia and the rest of the nation continues to age, Bales’ story is becoming more and more commonplace, but no less difficult.
Adult children are often left to talk their parents through the dilemma of immobility or the pain of the perceived injustice.
“One of the most common calls we receive is, ‘How do I tell my mom or dad that they can’t drive anymore?’” said Libbi Hash, regional director of the West Virginia Alzheimer’s Association. “They say, ‘He won’t listen. What can we do?’”
For Hash, questions of this nature all come down to a central theme: How do you parent your parents?
It’s no easy task.
“We often hear from a daughter who has to take the keys away from her father — this strong, independent man who raised her,” Hash said. “And sometimes they just can’t do it.”
And sometimes, inaction has dire results.
“I recently met a family who didn’t want to stop their mother from driving,” Hash said. “It was a small rural town, and she didn’t go very far. But she pulled out in front of a 30-year-old woman, and in the accident the 30-year-old lost all her teeth and has had six surgeries since.
“Their mother still wants to drive. They tell her the car’s still in the shop.”
For those who find the problem too difficult to handle alone, Hash recommends seeking out an authority figure — a doctor or police officer, for instance.
“As children, we don’t carry much weight in these situations,” she said. “Sometimes, something as simple as a physician taking a prescription pad and writing ‘Mr. Smith can no longer drive’ can work.
“On the other hand, they might turn around and say, ‘What’s he know? I’ve been driving longer than he’s been alive.’
“There’s no easy answer.”
Dementia can bedevil once-stalwart drivers (Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia), but more common signs of aging can also cause problems behind the wheel.
‘You didn’t even have to parallel park’
Frank Spurlock, 76, of Barboursville teaches a class to his peers on how to recognize the signs of deteriorating driving skills. The class, AARP’s 55 Alive Driver Safety Program, is a two-day, four-hour-a-day course, open to anyone 50 and older. The cost is $10.
Standing before a recent class at the Rock Branch Independent Church activities building, Spurlock talked about seniors’ increased sensitivity to glare and reduced ability to focus, both problems for driving at night.
He described how, as a person ages, the ability to break down alcohol lessens, how depth perception changes and how fatigue sets in more quickly.
He demonstrated stretching exercises that can make it easier for an older person to glance over their shoulder and into their car’s blind spot.
“A lot of older people, when we took the driver’s test, there was no manual. You didn’t even have to parallel park,” Spurlock explained. “You drove around the courthouse a few times with a trooper, and as long as you didn’t hit anything or run a stop sign, you passed.
“We teach the manual. Older people drive fewer miles, but they’re involved in more accidents per mile.”
In 1999, older people (age 70 or older) made up 9 percent of the U.S. population, but accounted for 13 percent of all traffic fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Former state Division of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Joe Miller suggested in 1997 that all drivers be required to retake the driver’s test once they reach a certain age. It was never acted upon and has not been revisited.
People who take the AARP course can get a discount on their car insurance, but Spurlock said the main focus is on getting seniors to think about their driving skills.
“Ours is geared toward a self-assessment of abilities,” he said. “We help them recognize when their ability has dropped. The rest is usually up to their children.”
‘He called me constantly asking for his keys’
It was a Sunday morning about two years ago. A man on his way to church pulled into traffic and into the path of an oncoming car.
No one was hurt, but his car was in pretty bad shape. Jan Bowen, his daughter, was mortified. She knew it was time to take the keys away, and she could see the storm clouds building on the horizon.
“It was so upsetting for me for two reasons: seeing him losing his independence and knowing what it was going to do to my life.”
It’s been a long two years for Bowen, but things have finally reached an even keel. Her father, now 92, has come to terms with the loss of his driving privileges — well, mostly.
Bowen is familiar with seniors’ issues. She’s director of the Older Americans Act programs for the state Bureau of Senior Services. She tried everything she knew.
“We told him the car was no longer drivable, but he couldn’t be convinced,” she said. “He called me constantly asking for his keys, asking about the car. We asked a policeman to come up and look at the car and tell him it wasn’t drivable. We wanted him to take his license, too, but he said he couldn’t legally do that.
“We put the car in the garage and disabled it further. He started saying he was going to take the car and get it fixed. We took him to the eye doctor, thinking maybe he would believe him because he didn’t believe the policeman.
“He told him his peripheral vision wasn’t very good. He put it down in writing that he shouldn’t drive, but my father’s thing was, ‘if I didn’t think I should be driving, then I wouldn’t.’
“I even tried to get his insurance canceled. I called the company, but they said he had such a good driving record that under no circumstances would they cancel his policy.”
Bowen arranged for a van to take him to the South Charleston nutrition site for lunch, then found someone to pick up groceries and prepare his evening meals.
She and her family made every excuse they could to keep him from starting to search for his keys. Still do.
“He still thinks he drives. He’ll say, ‘OK, I’ll meet you over there,’ but we say, ‘Oh, that’s all right, we’re going past your place anyway. We’ll pick you up.’”
Before the accident, Bowen and her family had talked about the day they would have to take the keys away. They spoke to him about it, but only in general terms.
“He’s pretty set in his ways. We knew it would be difficult when the time came,” she said. “Looking back, the accident was probably for the best.”
Bowen acknowledges that she’s not always truthful with her father as far as driving goes, but she finds the white lies and excuses better than brutal honesty every time he forgets.
“There’s no sense in hurting his feelings repeatedly,” she said, and asked that his name not be used in this article.
Bowen is middle-aged, the youngest of three daughters. Her older sisters live out of state, meaning much of the responsibility associated with her parents (her mother died in 1997, shortly after Bowen moved her into a care home) falls onto her shoulders.
“But it seems like everyone I know is going through this, and the driving is such a big part of it,” she said. “It’s never easy.”
To contact staff writer Robert J. Byers, use e-mail or call 348-1236.