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?’”
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.