In 1903, Barney Oldfield became the first man to drive a motorcar a mile a minute. My parents noted old Barney’s passing in 1946 when they were at the height of their high-speed twenties. Dad called Mom “Barney Oldfield” when she’d roar down California’s 101. Cars got faster and Mom kept up. Dad was furious when the government required everyone to wear seat belts and slow down to 55 on freeways. Ten years after Oldfield’s funeral, all five of us kids had arrived and Barney Oldfield became a household legend. His name had become synonymous with SPEED to us. Though I took racing lessons in my Porsche at age 32, I distinguished myself in a different arena demanding speed, reflexes and eye-hand coordination.
I was the unparalleled, summer fly swatting champion. Year after year, for two decades, I killed the most flies out of the whole family. Killing the lazy, sleeping ones seemingly glued to the window was child’s play. It was my uncanny ability to swat them while flying at top speed that impressed. One summer in my mid-30’s, I killed 23 in a row, all in flight. My reaction time was revered and got complimentary laughs at multi-generational family gatherings.
As my kids got older they entered the competition. And although they came close to my title, I was still reining champion. That is until my mid-50's, after 20 years of superlative swatting, there came a day I couldn’t knock a single fly out of the air! They had clearly gotten faster. The kids stopped believing I’d ever killed 23 in a row. Then the day came when I couldn’t kill a fat, old sleeping fly sunbathing on the window. I swatted—so many times, that it awoke and lazily buzzed off before I could deal the lethal blow. I was humiliated. I wasn't even 60. I presented my swatter to my kids as Queens pass on their scepters.
While more and more flies began finding sanctuary in my presence, my parents began saying how they were going to keep driving until they dropped dead. Mom was creative about why she should drive. “We’re in a hurry and I’ve still got the Oldfield touch,” she’d tease. Her increasingly dementia, however, convinced even Dad that she didn’t belong on the road. And unfortunately/fortunately it was easy to hide her keys.
Dad was the challenge. He had survived France in WW II and wouldn’t let a mere mild stroke keep him from getting behind the wheel. He rejected Mom’s observations that eye surgery and his new knee didn’t help. And we, his wise middle-aged kids, also pleaded. “I’ll never let a kid of mine tell me what to do. Never been your job and it isn’t now!” he thundered. “Now you want me to hang up my car keys, then you’ll want me to hand over my house keys and send me to a home. I’ll lay down and die just to spite you!”
I argued that we all change as we mature. I admitted to him that even my eye-hand coordination and reaction time weren't what they used to be. He wouldn't budge. So I tried a new approach: “When we were 11 and 12 and wanted to drive you never let us do it! You loved us and you knew our bodies weren’t ready. When it was time, we learned and got licensed.” “I didn’t let you drive because the law said you couldn’t. If the law says I can’t, then I won’t! But no law cares about my driving!”
He was right. As of 2017, no state outright bans seniors of any age from driving. Less than half of the states place any kind of renewal restrictions on senior drivers, while the majority of them have only minor restrictions. Most of them simply reduce the number of years between renewals, beginning in your 70's or 80's. Surprisingly only a handful of states explicitly require more frequent vision tests. But not a single state requires a hearing test! We all know hearing declines with age, just as we all know drivers need to be able to hear. This needs to change.
I implored Dad, “The law isn’t the point! You didn’t follow the law when seat belts were required! You snubbed the 55 MPH reduction. You’ve been a “law breaker” when it suited you. Now you can save lives!” My arguments fell on deaf ears. Literally. His hearing had diminished and he hated his hearing aides. “How can you even hear other cars, let alone police sirens?” Unsurprisingly, his hearing failed him when I said such things. When Dad bought a brand new car without telling the family, the camel’s back caved. My sister and her husband moved from Arizona to commandeer the car. Initially, Dad fought tooth and nail. But finally, the issue dissipated. Anywhere he needed to go, they were willing to take him.
Mom and Dad have both passed, but our arguments about driving remain vivid as I round 60. I’ve told my kids, “You know I can be a pain in the patoot, but please--don’t let me buffalo you into keeping my keys when I become an unsafe driver. There's no “if” about it. I will become unsafe because my body will insist on it. My reaction time is already getting worse. Even now, I couldn't swat a fly out of mid air if my life depended on it! I don’t want to argue about this when I get old. Please remind me of my parents. When the time comes, tell me there are more important things than keeping my car.” Sorry Barney, but there’ve got to be limits.
Written by Kate S. Sharpe, MSW, PhD
For Senior Directory
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