I have written numerous books and articles on ageing and retirement related issues. And have personally experienced situations where many elderly people, although no longer able to drive safely, steadfastly refuse to relinquish their car keys; refuse to move over to the passenger’s seat – sometimes with disastrous consequences. My father for example drove far longer than he should have, and was only forced to stop driving, when he was involved in a serious accident, in which my wife (at the age of 25) was very nearly killed.
But there is a personal twist to this tale. Having forced him to stop driving, 50 years later I found myself in a similar predicament. I have a rare eye disease known as Fuch’s Dystrophy. 15 years ago I started to lose my sight. In more recent years, although all too aware of my increasing vision impairment, I continued to drive. Once when my GP asked why I was till driving, I explained that it was more difficult in the winter months, as when I opened my driver’s window in order to use my white cane, I got frostbite. (His startled response was to ask me to please let him know on which days I intended driving, in order that he could leave his vehicle at home, whimpering and cowering in the back corner of his garage). And so I continued to drive… that is until last Tuesday, when I very nearly ran over a traffic policeman on point duty in Commercial Road. As he jumped out of the way, his pop-eyed face contorted by a combination of both horror and anger, he shouted at me… “Couldn’t you bloody-well see me?” My response, as I continued driving past him was “No!” An answer which I am sure did little to sooth either his peaking heartbeat or almost dented pride! (I had always been of the view that were I to accidently “take someone out” by accidently running them over, traffic policeman, adorned in their standard issue of sunglasses and yawns, could be the lesser of many competing evils).
I instantly realised that the very thing I had, in my books and articles on successful ageing, been warning others of, I myself was now guilty of. I had continued driving even though I knew that I was no longer a safe driver. I had fallen into the trap of … “Do what I say, not what I do!” The revelation was a watershed moment. I suddenly concluded that I must take my own advice. And so it was that without further ado en route home, I had called into a friendly motor mechanic and arranged to sell my vehicle the following Friday. On arriving home I explained what had happened to my wife, who supported my decision. The news was met with a degree of relief, as she had long since banned me from driving her small vehicle, and had already assumed the responsibility for driving after dark.
Even as I made the decision I experienced concern at the fact that certain pre-arranged appointments, such as book talk engagements in Howick and committee meetings in Kloof, were already looming. And that they clashed with my wife’s regular commitments such as weekly bible study meetings which she hosted at our home, as well as the days on which she worked with our gardener. I was also all too aware of the fact that these two clashing appointments were only the tip of the iceberg – a foretaste of clashing arrangements to come! However I realised that were I to once more procrastinate… then I would never relinquish the steering wheel. (I however took some comfort in the knowledge that as our marriage vows had included the phrase … to honour, love and obey, this could, when needs arose, facilitate her willingness to assume the role of chauffeur). Will relying on others be easy? No! Although approaching seventy five years of age, I continue to work as a consultant in gerontology, do motivational talks on retirement matters, and very regularly visit friends and colleagues in the town where we live.
I have always rated giving up driving as second only to the death of a loved one as a source of trauma. The prospect of losing one’s independence, as well as reduced opportunities to practice spontaneity, is a scary concept indeed! My lifestyle relies on independence more than those of many others. I live a flighty existence where I regularly drop in to see friends and colleagues; go to printing companies; call in at book shops, or simply pop-in to retirement facilities with whom I have worked closely over the last 25 years. And the latter are not merely social visits; they additionally provide me with opportunities to exchange ideas and keep up to date with current trends and problems in the retirement field. Mine is virtually an ADD inspired life (and loving it, I dread the prospect of being curbed or confined). Imagine having to plan everything in advance; of having to rely totally on the beneficence of others? It’s all very well if one lived in a country where public transport was efficient and reliable; where one merely had to jump on a bus, tube or a train – but sadly South Africa is very different! Here lengthy distances, high rates of violence and crime, make the prospect of relying solely on public transport daunting indeed.
However!… Do I really wish to have the decision to move over to the passenger seat thrust upon me by others; how would I feel were I forced to hand over my car keys to strangers; would I like it said of me that, as I never practiced what I preached, the advice contained in my various books lacked credibility? And most importantly – Would I like to be responsible for the deaths of others? Taking all of these factors into consideration strengthened my resolve to give up driving a car altogether. Do I hear a silent sob, or sad sigh? For those of you, who so look forward to my regular visits and could consequently possibly suffer severe withdrawal symptoms, please be assured that I will continue to visit, just maybe not as often.
So the final day that I will actually drive a motor vehicle will be on Friday the 11th of August, 2017. I intend holding a Wake… I will probably have a tot or two, while my bakkie, Big Blue, will be treated to a little Turtle Wax polish (I had thought of topping up the radiator with tots of Brandy – but concluded that this may not create the correct impression, when I introduce Big Blue to his new owner the next morning?
But on a slightly more serious note; as I make this difficult decision and undertake daunting lifestyle changes, I would like to leave other seniors with two final thoughts – these being: Firstly – if you find yourself in a similar predicament, remember that having lived a long life, experiences and common sense gleaned over many years, will hopefully enable you to make the right choice. Don’t wait for others to patronisingly ask you (or worse still –force you!) to hand over your car keys; to move across to the passenger’s seat. You by now know what you have to do. Do the right thing! Slide across willingly – and in time! Sadly too often procrastination rules, with the decision only being forced on elderly drivers when they are involved in unfortunate accidents – the consequences of which may just turn out to be tragic! And secondly – inevitable lifestyle changes will emanate from reduced mobility. But remember engaging in life was never intended merely as a shopping trip to your local cafe. Life is a mega-shopping mall, where the only legal currency is enthusiasm… and this coinage cannot be earned. Fortunately we each come equipped with our own ATMs (Adaptive Technique Machines)… we merely need to key in our own 13 letter user name – DETERMINATION, followed by the 5 letter password – ADAPT! We will then be able to afford an enjoyable new life ahead.
So, make the right decision; if necessary give up driving in time… and with determination adapt appropriately and get on with life!
– by Henry Spencer