“Silver-haired tsunami”

mercado-thumb“You are – what ?,” we asked the man who walked into our computer nook.  “I’m your new driver, sir. Your son says you should not drive anymore.”

We didn’t give up our car keys. They were gently taken away from us. Our children hired Aniceto. “The difference between a good and bad driver is about 30 years too many on the road”, they later explained.

“Every day, families and lawmakers face the dilemma of whether – or when – to take away grandpa’s car keys”, Fox News notes. People now live longer. There’s been “a silver-hair tsunami” of elderly drivers. (Some) end up with more than dented fenders.”

We’ve seen compelling highway safety studies. Drivers in their 60s are among the safer, the Economist reports. Drivers aged 70 and over are 9 percent of US population. Yet, this sliver was linked to 17 percent of pedestrian deaths.

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From 80s onward, death rates were nine times greater than for those under 70. Long before Henry Ford assembled the first buggy, the Psalmist wrote: “Seventy is the sum of our years. Eighty if we are strong.”

But taking hands off the wheel, for good, took time to sink in. Decades of habit resisted.

We drove all five kids to grade school thru clogged Manila traffic. We’d ferry them to colleges in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Massachussets. In our Rome UN posting, we were family chauffeur in vacations from Cork in Ireland to Taj Mahal in Agra, India.

On spacious streets behind the Tobacco Monopoly compound in Bangkok, we taught the five how to drive. “Don’t forget our allowance,” they’d prod us at the end of nerve-wracking tutorials. They took over the wheel; for spells, after getting their licenses.

Former-president Bill Clinton dubs us “junior-senior.” Associated Press first used the phrase “near elderly.” My surviving classmates, however, prefer to be called “mature” or the non-committal “a certain age.”

Our locks are grey and we use bifocals. Increasingly, we fumble for names. Please speak a little louder? We often ask.

A doctor bumped into his 86-year old patient strolling with a sultry lady, we’re told. At the clinic, he asked about the woman. “Just following your orders Doc”, the octogenarian replied. “You said, get a hot mama and be cheerful.” The physician protested: “I said no such thing. All I told you was: ‘You have a heart murmur. Be careful.’”

Today, more youngsters have ignition keys to more horsepower than our generation did. “Fortunately, teenagers mature, gain experience and put their risky behavior behind them”, the Economist adds. That contrasts with the elderly. (Far too many) do not realize how much skill, judgment and reaction time they’ve lost. They don’t factor in deteriorating vision and lesser stamina.

As years slip by, the brain begins to shrink and blood flow slackens. Ability to process thoughts — “cognitive function’ is the medical term – slows down.  After retirement, two out of three, begin to experience “senior moments”.  These can range from tendency to misplace things or a word on the tip of the tongue which never comes.

Memory lapses become more frequent. “Time for lunch.” Students call out as the professor walks. “I already had something to eat,” he replies. “Oh, no. Was that the specimen for this afternoon’s lecture.”

If cognitive impairment is mild, one usually retains capacity to learn, read and speak. But attention span deteriorates along with short-term memory. In some, this may lead to Alzheimer’s or dementia.                             .

Cognitive skills allow a driver to steer smoothly or ease in between fast-moving cars. Reaction time is critical.  Youngsters like our grand-daughter, a senior  at  University of California Los Angeles, can hit brakes  within  “ 0.7 second  for something expected to 1.5 seconds for a total surprise”  Not  her Lolo..

Three factors interlock in accidents involving elderly drivers. (a) poor judgment, specially when turning across oncoming traffic (b) drifting out of lane. “If everything is coming your way, don’t shoo them off. You’re probably barreling in the wrong lane” (c) inability to react fast to cope with unexpected events.

“It takes 8,460 bolts to assemble a car – and one nut to scatter them all over the road”…So, when should you hand over your car keys?  There are no clear-cut guidelines.

“I am approaching 80,” Bob Hope once cracked. “I’m not sure from what direction. All I can tell you is they’ve cancelled my blood type.”

Ask your doctor. Many of the grey mop crowd is often on “maintenance medication” for chronic ailments. Some drugs may have ingredients that further dull motor skills and whittle down reaction times

Families can best judge it’s time for an older driver to slide out from behind the wheel, says University of Massachusetts gerontology professor Elizabeth Dugan. “But many wait until an accident.”

“Confusion on familiar routes, frequent dents, being on the receiving end of increasing honks are signs it’s time give up the keys, American Automotive Association says.  That does not mean losing independence as long as a support system in place.

There is need for tougher driver screening for oldies. How did they let us – and others in a similar fix – get away with that?

We will paste up this last license as a souvenir – if we can remember where we left our scrapbook, that is. (Email: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com)

By Juan L. Mercado



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