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they...can't...drive -- 85!
unsafe at any speed
by russ carr (@DocOrlando70)

A few weeks ago, I joined the rest of my family at what passes for our ancestral homestead down in Orlando for what was the first step in preparing for my grandparents' transition from self-sufficiency to assisted living. The goal of the week was to clear out 30-plus years of accumulated detritus from their two-car garage. My biggest regret was not contacting an archeologist; I found a box from a toy scooter I received for Christmas, 1972, and the complete video collection of Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts (mint condition).

The motivating factor behind all of our work was - is - my granddad's progressive deterioration due to Alzheimer's over the past year. In an effort to slow the disease, and to protect my grandparents, his doctor had to lower the boom: no more cigarettes, no more liquor, no more driving. Granddad, still relatively lucid, accepted it all. I was amazed that he didn't put up more of a fight, particularly about losing his car keys, but then again, Granddad's one hell of a guy.

So on a Tuesday afternoon back in St. Louis, I'm stuck in line at the License Bureau to renew my wife's car's tags, when I overhear a woman coaching someone on what a stop sign looks like. Straining to hear over the bleating of the sheep in line ahead of me, I turn to follow the voice and see a 50-something woman with her arm around a small, stooped, white-haired woman who I guess is her mother. The younger woman points out the window and says "Can you see that out there? That stop sign? It's red. Only stop signs are red." I follow her outstretched finger and see the sign she's indicated, a good 150 feet across the parking lot. The older woman hasn't even gotten her head around when the younger woman stops pointing.

It occurs to me that it's likely the older woman is going for her license renewal test, and I flash back to another license bureau office, several months earlier. I was in to get my driver's license renewed, and in front of me was an older couple, probably in their early 70s, I'd guess. We'd been in line for half an hour already. The gentleman was the one getting checked; his wife was there for support. No, not moral support, physical support. She held him up as he walked to the eye-test machine.

Over the past half-hour in line, I'd heard half a dozen people rattle off the answers to the street sign identification test; the matron running the thing never varied the questions. I half-expected a live version of the eye-test scene from (the execrable) "Space Cowboys," wherein Tommy Lee Jones' eagle-eyed character read even the finest print off the chart. When Donald Sutherland's myopic old pilot stepped up next, he "read" the chart perfectly as well. When asked by his buddies how he did it, he says, "I may be blind, but my memory's sharp as a tack."

Well, this old guy was no Donald Sutherland. The DMV matron asked him to identify one sign. After several minutes of silence, she asked him to identify a different one...and then another. I felt a great swell of pity for the man -- growing old and realizing you can't trust your senses is terrifying, I'm sure.

But what happened next terrified me most certainly. The DMV matron handed the guy a piece of paper that had the signs from the test with their names written below, and urged him to go sit with his wife, study the page, and then try again in a few minutes. "Are you kidding me?!" I wanted to yell. "Does the Missouri Department of Revenue need this guy's $21 so much you'll let him keep trying 'til he gets it right?"

I held my tongue. I took my test, paid the fee, smiled for the camera. I didn't stick around to see if the guy tried again. As I walked out, grimacing about my new license photo, I saw the couple hunched over their cheat sheet. I hoped I'd never meet the guy in traffic.

So back to Tuesday.The cashier and I push papers at each other and I walk out with new stickers for Kathy's car. The middle aged woman is still quizzing her mom. I think of my great-grandmother - Granddad's mom - who never drove in her life, but who did just fine depending on her husband (until he, too, got Alzheimer's and had to surrender his keys) and after his death, her friends and neighbors. She finally moved to an assisted living center this year. She's 99. I wonder why the elderly woman at the DMV needs to drive.

When I worked for a local paper a few years ago, I grew accustomed to the nearly annual spectacle of an elderly driver smacking his or her Oldsmobuick into something big in the bank parking lot next to our building. By "something big," I mean a retaining wall (twice), an ATM (once), and the bank itself (once). (Well, three times, really. She backed up, hit it again, backed up, hit it again. She stopped when her wheel got stuck.)

A couple of days later, I'm driving home from work, thinking about all of this, trying to organize it into an essay. The song on the radio stops, and the DJ gives a traffic update. Seems there's a mess down in the south city.

An elderly man has just turned a 7-11 into a drive-thru.

I pull into my driveway, grateful that Granddad - even "losing his marbles" as he says - had the good sense to turn in his license before he became the old guy driving with his left blinker on for six miles...


If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.

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