By Danna Downing
I am reminded of the time I brought my mom over from Jackson for consultation with the Bronson geriatric team many years ago. My dad had passed away several years prior and she was doing poorly living in their family home. We were looking for affordable appropriate housing to reduce her isolation and I needed professional help. We learned much during that visit and began to work on her housing issues. One of the most important things we learned was that the Kalamazoo Center for Independent Living (now the Disability Center for Southwest Michigan) offered a free driving assessment. We made an appointment. We were both pretty nervous about doing this. The assessment included testing her reaction time, cognitive skills, hearing and vision. She passed all those tests with flying colors.
Now it was time for the road test which was to be conducted by a driver safety trainer who specialized in working with older adults. The office we were visiting was on Westnedge just south of Whites Road, with heavy traffic. I admired the man’s courage; my mom thought he was “a nice young man.“ I was prepared to wait patiently while they went out to do the test. But the nice young man insisted that I come along and sit in the back seat for moral support. I could not say “no” but was more than a little worried, to say the least. I squeezed into the back seat and said a special prayer for all of us. I was further startled d when he said: “Jackie, we will have you start in the driver seat.” He then climbed into the passenger seat and told us both to just relax. He was masterful in preparing us both for this foray into traffic. It was part dress rehearsal and talking about how she made decisions while she was driving. He talked about planning the route before putting the key in the ignition. That included choosing a low traffic route and time of day, eliminating any unnecessary left turns which can be challenging, especially in those days before protected left turn traffic lights. He inquired about how she managed similar streets in Jackson and offered tips for this particular trip to McDonalds for a cup of coffee, her favorite place to go. Then he told her to put the key in and take us for a ride in her cute little car.
My mother had been driving at that time for over 60 years and she did an amazing job. I was very proud of her and more importantly, she was really proud of herself. She left KCIL that day with new strategies, new confidence and great relief that for now she would not lose her lifeline to other people and the little adventures that allowed her to enjoy each day. She eventually moved to a rural housing situation, very close to McDonalds and was able to live in assisted living and still drive for two more years before her health deteriorated.
Now, here I am almost 20 years older than she was when she died. I am still driving, but I make the plan before I leave the garage. I often invite a navigator when I am going someplace out of my comfort zone. I also make appointments during low traffic periods when I can. I do not use electronic way finders because, for me, they are too distracting and hard to manage while driving. I make sure I am not driving without enough gas in my energy tank and my gas tank. I strive for complete concentration while driving. I get off the road and recalculate safely as soon as I know I have a problem. I carry my cell phone so I can call ahead if I am running late or need directions. I am grateful for every drive I can make for myself and others. Using all these strategies helps me to not panic in a pinch. If I had to pick the number one way to stay out of trouble, I would say it is to concentrate on what you are doing while driving. I trust that with the help of family and friends, I will know when to stop driving and able to accept the fact graciously.
If you are looking for an excellent resource to learn about driving more safely for yourself or a loved one, check out Michigan.gov/AgingDriver where you can download a copy for review. It is 52 pages in length and you can request a free copy by email. There will also be limited supplies available at South County Community Services via Brian Penny, your Senior Outreach Coordinator. There will also be copies at the Vicksburg District Library.