“What If?”-ing Seniors the Way We “What If?!?” Kids

Hi Folks! Here’s an excerpt from an essay in The Houston Chronicle by 90 year old Leon Hale. He is pondering a personal “test” — driving his pick up around the downtown loop — to make sure he’s still in fine fettle. He feels good, his eyes are good, his writing is great so — why not? But his friends are less encouraging:

Those who want me to quit the test say, “What if you get rear-ended by an 18-wheeler? What if you had a flat tire going over the Ship Channel Bridge? What if a dog ran out on the freeway and you swerved to miss it and hit another car?”

But they’re not trying very hard. Lots more interesting and horrible stuff could happen.

What if a large bird, such as a buzzard, flew through my windshield and shattered it?

What if a helicopter crashed on the freeway and, of all the vehicles on the Loop, landed on top of my pickup? It could happen.

What if, while I was going around, Houston had an earthquake? We’ve never had an earthquake, so maybe we’re due one.

When I was 10 years old, in my school we had an assignment called current events. The forerunner of show and tell, I think. Each student clipped a news story out of the paper and got up at school and summarized the event.

I had found an item about a meteorite crashing through a barn in Germany, killing a cow. Mrs. Carter, our teacher, said after I gave my little talk, “Just think. Even cows in their barns are not safe.”

Just think: We’ve been imagining worst case scenarios for 80 years, and now it’s a national pastime. We think we are just being smart and protective, when actually we are being incredibly pessimistic and distrusting. We especially do it when it comes to our kids and, apparently, our elders. We underestimate them both. — L

Ooh, an old person! How cute and, by definition, in danger!

43 Responses

  1. hmmm, this raises an interesting question: At what age does one lose the ability to deal with a flat tire?

  2. Anyone outside the age range of 18 – 60 must be monitored and coddled, for their own good of course!

  3. Two years ago a local author called the 70 and 80 year olds in town to collect stories for a history book on a Northeast Ohio kids camp that has existed for almost 100 years. My younger sister cautioned our 83 year old mom about meeting some stranger at a restaurant. Luckily mom was not the type to be afraid of such things – had a pleasant meeting, and was even invited out to the old camp location to sharpen her memory of some of her stories which I’m happy to say do appear in the publication along with old photos of her and her friends as young girls at the camp. Mom passed away shortly after it came out and it is one of the last memories we have of her. She was absolutely thrilled to have been a part of it – almost like a kid again. Thanks Mom.

  4. My grandmother passed away at the ripe age of 94. She had worked as a school teacher, and then after having raised her children to adulthood, went back to college at the age of 62. She graduated from law school at 65, and practiced until she was 74. When everyone else expected her to fade quitely into old age, she packed her bags and started traveling around the world. My aunt, and her friends were horrified. “You’re getting old. What if you die while you’re in another country?” Her response was always, “That’s what I’m hoping for.” Over the next twenty years, she hiked to Machu Picchu, rode a camel in Giza, bicycled on the Great Wall, and knocked a pickpocket out cold in Bangladesh (My cousin and I got to be there for that one!). She also died peacefully in her sleep, in a room on the bank of the Danube in Budapest. It was my greatest privilege to be the one to bring her home, and her passport, with the stamps of 54 countries, is one of my most prized possessions.

    I guess I’m a Free-range parent, because my greatest influence was my free-range granny!

    I suggest Leon not try the Loop in his pickup but take a 2012 Corvette for a test drive around it…convertable would be a HUGE bonus! Drive on Leon, drive on!

  5. Forget the 18-60 age group Silver Fang… it’s the entire population… have you read some of the OH&S rules/laws/guidelines we have in Australia… seriously, you almost need to fill in a form to tie your boot laces!!!! God forbid we let a kid climb a tree or pick up a rock or a stick or DIRT!!!! Oh that would never do… and seniors??? omg they should all be wearing safety helmets when they get out of bed in case they fall over!!!

    FAR FREAKIN’ OUT… I seriously cannot stand it one minute longer… as my husband says when he comes off the mine site he works at (where you have to fill out said form to tie your bootlaces)… I’m off to mow the lawn in my thongs (that’s flip flops NOT underwear in Australia!!!)… and change light bulbs by standing on a swivelling office chair… just to home my survival instincts… they are being “safety’d” out of me!!!!!

  6. hone… not home! 😉

  7. “At what age does one lose the ability to deal with a flat tire?”

    I think that question is like asking, at what age does a person gain the ability to deal with a flat tire? Do you know of an age for that, because I sure don’t.
    I suspect that although I have the knowledge to deal with a flat tire, I probably don’t have the strength.

    So would it count as dealing with the flat if I called a tow truck, or instructed a helpful passerby of adequate strength? In which case my ability to deal with a flat hasn’t increased much since I learned how to read. And it won’t be decreased significantly until I am senile or blind. (What age does that happen at?)

    Age is almost always the wrong question. And it distracts us from asking the right questions about skills, knowledge, abilities etc.

  8. This is not relevant to this post, but my co-worker’s husband was scolded by the day care worker for taking a picture of his toddler and his little “friend” who has been in the center with him since both were born. She made him deleted the photos even though he works with the other little guy’s mother. My co-worker is going to send her boy to day care in a burka now so as to protect him from perverts who might look at him or take a picture. Really, all children should be in burkas.

  9. “hmmm, this raises an interesting question: At what age does one lose the ability to deal with a flat tire?”

    The day you get your license, if you’re a physically typical woman who gets her tires put on at a shop using pneumatic wrenches.

    That’s losing the ability to do it physically, at least. I’d figure that you can still call AAA when you’re 372. 373, though, might be too old.

    Those are the weirdest objections. Some of them, like the flat tire, can be coped with by some appropriate means regardless of age, and others, like the 18-wheeler, could happen to anyone with an equally dire result.

  10. I’m 54. I guess it’s time to get my walker out. Thanks for this great post.

  11. This reminds me of when I was out at a bar with my sisters, including my second oldest sister, who is near 60 and a grandmother. Two men sent over a round of shots. We are older gals now, so it’s been a while since we were sent free drinks. One of the sisters cautioned us about drinking them, “What if he put a Ruffie in it to drug us?”. My older sister said, “What are they going to do, drug grandma and throw her in the back of the van? Seriously? You think with all the young chicks in here they want to drug us?!” She threw the shot back and told us to lighten up and have some fun. We thanked the nice men for the free drinks, and they joined us for some laughs and great conversation at the bar.

  12. My grandmother learned to SCUBA dive at 80. I remember getting a postcard from her my freshman year of college (she was 88), telling me she was having a great time in Palau. Her last trip, at 92, was a cruise down the Amazon. I hope I can do as well this year as she ever did.

  13. I lost my mom to cancer at age 66, and my dad is heading for a nursing home at age 71 due to severe health problems. I would truly give my left arm to have active elderly parents. I would be shoving them out the door saying, “Please, go spend my inheritance on something fun! You’ve earned it!” Unless they are trying to drive with too little vision, or they can’t physically slam on the brake, I would never try to stop my elders from having fun. Wish I had the option.

  14. Binxcat1, thank you for sharing the story of your grandmother. She must have been awesome!

  15. I am a 58 year old woman who has long instilled fears I’ve garnered in my lifetime but I am happy and relieved to say that the older I get the easier it is to face the fears and set them free, generally they are things that have never happened to me or anyone I know and yet they have restrained me from taking hot air balloon rides, trying skiing of any type and traveling on a cruise ship. They are all on my wish list and when opportunity arises I believe that at this point I will give them a try! You go Leon! We each live our own lives and have our own opinions and those opinions are the only ones to listen to!

  16. @BMS- I also lost my mom at 66 suddenly 20 years ago and my dad last year. After my mom died, my dad got sick, but bounced back. He bought his first speedboat at 76. We called him Mr. Magoo of the high seas but he loved every minute of it. His favorite quote was “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun” by Katherine Hepburn.

  17. I work with two people in their 70s who are more active and fit than most people half their age. In the 6 years that I’ve been in my job the older man, who’s 78, has traveled to London, New York, Prague, and Los Angeles by himself. In a couple of months he will go to San Francisco.

    My father, who’s 83, just returned to the States from a trip to Scandinavia. He had never been there and decided to go on a cruise to Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. He and my stepmother had a great time and they’re already planning their next trip.

    Another friend of mine is in her late 60s. She took up long distance bike riding in her early 60s. Before that, she was a marathon runner and is my role model for what an older athlete can accomplish. When I ran the Munich Marathon in 2007, I was talking to a woman in the start corral. She was 63 and running her first marathon. She completed her first half-marathon in 2006 and decided that she wanted to run a full marathon.

    None of the people I mentioned ever worried about being hit by a wayward asteroid, being abducted by aliens, or being sucked into a tornado’s vortex. All of them have a real zest for life. I hope I can become like them when I’m a senior citizen.

  18. Now this is a kind of a tough one for me. I’m all for equality regardless of age. In the sense that you give respect to get respect back. Yes, we should be respecting our children. And our elderly has definitely, for the most part, earned respect from us. But there is a difference in kids and the elderly to me. Children are growing, and learning. Their brains are thirsting for knowledge. They have yet to create the synapses that would eventually be their memories and knowledge when they are grown into adolescence and adulthood. They are capable of learning more and more every day. They are by no means helpless (mentally and emotionally, and sometimes even physically), or “dumb”. But when it comes to the elderly, its just a natural course of the human body to start “falling apart”. We may be able to see well, but that would be “well for a 90 year old man”. Is that well enough to be driving on your own though. Writing is still good, arthritis hasn’t affected you. But are your reflexes good enough to react to certain situations on the road? It’s not really about whether they can drive, they can. It’s a question of, can they drive safely in traffic? I’ve seen plenty of elderly drivers that scare me. Not so much for myself, but for them. Now I’m not saying they should not be permitted to. But I’ve always believed that elderly drivers should have a different set of tests customized specifically for them in real world situation. Different tests for 60+, 70+, 80+, etc… Because after 70 (if some of us get so lucky), our bodies start deteriorate at a faster rate, and tests should accommodate for that. If they can pass that tests, then by all means let them drive.

    In regards to people treating the elderly in “What if” situations, well that’s no different than them treating children the same way…some people are just ignorant that way. “What if…” isn’t age specific, nor is it even intelligence specific. It’s all about fear and paranoia. Doesn’t matter how old you are, if you are fearful and paranoid, worse case scenario will always be your way of thinking. That’s a state of being one chooses to live. And like anything else they choose to do in life, shouldn’t be forced on anyone else. Just like prejudice, and hate. Fear of specific things are learned. Just like NOT fearing is learned. We aren’t born to fear “strangers”, we learn it. We aren’t born to fear “falling and getting scraped” we learn. Just as we learn to overcome the fear of falling and getting scraped, so that we know how to avoid it more and more.

  19. Eric, you’re right that there are real issues with aging, and it’s harder to judge whether/how fast/in what ways a given person is deteriorating in abilities.

    But the issue here is more about whether it makes sense to just imagine every possible horror that could happen to someone without even having a grasp on those things, and then do a “worst first” analysis. I mean, “Gee, Dad, are you sure your reaction times are up to this? When did you last have your eyes checked? Do you have roadside service in case you have a problem?” is one thing. “You might get rear-ended or get a flat tire” is another — those are unpredictable problems not specific to the elderly, and not really more or less problematic for the elderly than for anyone else if the particular person is otherwise competent to deal with complications. A ninety year old rear-ended badly enough by an 18 wheeler is not any deader than a 30 year old, and 18 wheelers don’t seek out the elderly to rear end. They really have nothing to do with whether it’s safe for a 90 year old in particular to take his truck out for a spin. Bur if your way of analyzing dangers is “worst first,” whether you’re talking about a two year old, a ten year old, or a ninety year old, your analysis will probably not be very sound.

  20. My 91 year old dad is in better shape mentally and physically than many people in their 30s. My grandfather was walking 2 to 3 miles a day at 97.
    We are all someone’s kid, when we get older or sick the roles often are switched with our kids for us to become their older kids. I had a major health issue at 49. Some things had to be re-learned after the treatment so I got to be my own kid and teach myself how to do certain things differently. I now straddle the line between chronological being an adult combined with some of the weaknesses of a child. Many others on disability say they more capable than others treat them as being and I suspect children feel the same way.

  21. I live in Florida. Not just Florida, but in the lovely coastal areas where everyone’s college kids come to spring break and their grandparents comes to retire. Then we have the snowbirds who haven’t moved permanently but migrate when the cold weather sets in up north (seriously jealous of them). We have a LOT of vehicle accidents- 5 in a half hour drive this am today alone. But it isn’t because of their age, it’s because everyone is from somewhere else and bring their regional, not-really-legal-but-everyone-does-it bad habits to the roads here.

    Just like we need to allow our kids freedom based on reality and their individual abilities we need to base restricting the freedoms of our elders based on reality and their individual challenges.

  22. My grandfather’s a former mechanical engineer who wound up living north of Detroit after WWII because… well, oddly enough, there was a significant demand for mechanical engineers in Detroit around that time. 🙂 He’s originally from eastern Kansas. He’s currently 87 years old. Lives in a rural area. Drives all over the place — including, on occasion, all the way to Kansas to visit his remaining brothers (he had four, he’s the youngest).

    I hope I’m doing that well in, oh, 48 years or so.

  23. This topic reminds me of a coke commercial from a few years back.

    Life is for living. Get outside, do something, anything, it’s better than sitting around. For me? See you on a motorcycle ride, I’ll be on the twistiest roads there are.

  24. This is unrelated to the post above but I was wondering if you had any advice about how to teach younger children (5 years or so) how to be aware of the admittedly very unlikely possibility of someone trying to abduct them or the like without making them afraid of all grown ups. I have never taught my children to fear people. In fact I am always supportive of them talking to people we don’t know. And I am a very outgoing person who talks easily with strangers so I’m sure they get the message that it’s fine. But now that my oldest is getting more independent I think it’s appropriate to begin to discuss this and teach them what to do should someone do something inappropriate. And I thought perhaps you’d have a great way of going about that. Thanks so much either way.

  25. Christina, I have talked to my kids about what is appropriate and what is not. It is appropriate to have a conversation with people, to ask for help if you need it or such. Just like we have rules about what is polite (look at people when talking to them, don’t interrupt) we also have things that are not appropriate for other people to ask you to do.

    We don’t get into people’s cars that we don’t know, even if they say they need help (go get mom or dad to help them.) We don’t leave the store or go into the bathroom or secluded area with anyone if we get separated at the store, even if they say that I am there. (We meet at the customer service desk. I will NEVER leave the store and expect to meet them outside.) It is never appropriate for someone other than doctor (or mom and dad depending on age and needs) to touch areas covered by a bathing suit. It is ALWAYS fine (and not rude) to leave a situation to get a trusted adult if you are not comfortable with what is being said, done or otherwise just feel that things are “strange.”

  26. @Kristi, great idea! I hope Leon knows about this blog (and maybe he should start one for people his age). My parents moved here to northern Delaware about 6 years ago, from rural western New York, and have both gotten much more comfortable driving on big roads and superhighways since they moved. Yes, people’s vision can get worse as they age. Yes, people’s mental acuity can go, too, if they don’t work at it. But Leon certainly writes like he’s got a great brain, and if he’s physically active he should do what he feels capable of. Truly, the way we all grow is by stretching. Kudos to Leon for wanting to continue to grow.

  27. lollipopover: Although I get your meaning and totally agree with you, please be careful about implying that only pretty young women get raped. Rape is a crime of control NOT sex.

  28. CCL: Excellent! Another thing I have always told my kids is, if they feel threatened to YELL LOUD “This is not my mom/dad”. They’ve never had to do it, but I imagine it would work!!!

  29. My mother-in-law had a stroke when she was about 70. She ended up going to adult day care and it was very sad because she had hearing loss since birth, and had a hard time with one side due to the stroke, but they treated her and the other adults like babies. When I suggested that they get more stimulating stuff for the adults who could….they refused and instead got kiddie watercolor kits for them. There was nothing wrong with her mind, even though she was a little difficult to understand because of the early hearing loss and the fact that her hearing aids didn’t always work right.

    The day care was supposed to help link her to services she needed, and when I contacted them to see if they could get her to see a counselor they blew me off. I was concerned that she was depressed. Their response was “Well yes, she had a stroke and she is old, of course she is depressed.” But she had had the stroke 7 years before, and she still needed help…she should have been able to live as happily as she was able. She was a wonderful woman, and could have done many things to help make her life meaningful, but the people who were supposed to help her do that didn’t. And she needed to hear that from more than just me.

    She tried going to the senior center some days instead of the day care, but they moved into a new building. The doors for the women’s room were incredibly heavy (you know, those ones that no kid under 8 can open) and because she used a cane, and couldn’t use her other hand, she refused to go because she was afraid that she would have an accident. Why they didn’t install an automatic door opener, I will never understand. The people at the senior center were her peers in mental ability, she should have been there, and she probably wouldn’t have been so depressed.

  30. Forgot to say, I love all these stories of men and women going off and doing things into their old age. My mother in law was one who got beat down by the nay-sayers, despite everything that I tried to do at long distance. Like, get her equal opportunity to use a phone via teletype when she was in the nursing home…

  31. What if a meteor crashes in to the Earth?

  32. I say why not do what you want to do. You only live once.

  33. It is the ‘precautionary principle’ society…..

    To quote Dory from Finding Nemo: “Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.”

  34. Someone from one of my Facebook groups posted this video of an 86-year-old woman competing on the parallel bars at a German gymnastics festival. Awesome!
    http://gymnasticscoaching.com/new/2012/03/86yr-old-lady-gymnast-competes-p-bars/

    In the States they would probably make her wear gloves to protect her hands from splinters and a crash helmet. They would also pile up the mats almost to the height of the bars so that if she did fall, it wouldn’t be far and it wouldn’t hurt. Even with all of that protection, a space alien could come along and abduct her in the middle of her routine. You just never know!

  35. A ninety year old rear-ended badly enough by an 18 wheeler is not any deader than a 30 year old, and 18 wheelers don’t seek out the elderly to rear end.

    Agreed, and also, not to put too fine a point on it, but if a 90 year old man gets killed by a rampaging truck, well, it’s unfortunate but how much longer could he have lived anyway? Sure, we’re all sad about Grandpa’s untimely passing, but by the time they hit 90 you’re pretty much expecting it sooner or later, aren’t you?

    If he’d rather live his life than be certain he’ll die in bed, more power to him!

  36. I think EricS above makes a good point. If elderly people continue driving forever, sooner or later their reflexes, vision, and cognitive abilities will deteriorate to the point where they will cause an accident. That accident may hurt people other than themselves.

    This is not “worst-first” thinking like worrying about stranger abductions caused by red tape outside children’s windows. Car accidents are frequent. The rate at which 90-year-old drivers cause accidents is significantly higher than the rate at which 50-year-old drivers cause accidents. Skip the flat tires, buzzards, and meteorites – the danger is “you could kill someone because you’re a very old person driving a very heavy vehicle that moves very fast, and you’re not the only one on the road (or the sidewalks).”

    When to stop driving must be a hard question, especially since there’s not an age where you’ll get to start again. But there should be a system to determine who’s still safe on the roads and who isn’t. I think even free-range parents don’t let their kindergarteners drive, and the argument for not letting the extremely old drive is equally strong.

  37. Eric M,

    While I agree with you in some ways, it very much depends on the person. My grandmother, of blessed memory, had vision loss and was therefore a dangerous driver – we wrestled her keys away before she turned 70. Her sister, on the other hand, is in her early 90s and still a safer driver than most of the other people on the road. I would honestly rather be in her passenger seat than that of most of the 30-50-year-olds I know.

    We shouldn’t make arbitrary age-based rules for seniors any more than we should for children, although the loved ones of seniors should be aware of their physical and mental conditions.

  38. P.S. I should add that my great-aunt just went on a 6-week-long walking tour of China – BY HERSELF – in 2010, so she’s not your average senior.

  39. My favorite quote from Leon Hale’s column was the conclusion he reached from his teacher’s reaction to the meteor.

    “That event happened 80 years ago, and since then not one more cow in all the world has been killed by a meteorite crashing into a barn. Mrs. Carter would be among those opposed to my driving around the Loop.”

    I love all of his examples of worst first thinking taken to extreme. It’s classic Texan to use exaggeration to make a point. Many of his columns are reminiscensces from when he was a “shirt tail kid”. He had the most free range of childhoods, which back then was just a normal childhood.

    As to the concerns about his driving–I’ve been reading his column forever. He’s good about knowing when he’s too old to do something. I don’t think he’s taking a terrible risk or putting anyone else in danger. I expect he is a cautious driver because of his years of experience, and that he will be the first to admit when he is physically unable to drive. There are so many drivers out there on the Houston freeway who are younger than Leon but who are far scarier drivers.

  40. What about requiring road tests more often, either for everybody or for people older than some arbitrary age cutoff?

  41. When I think about the stuff that has ended-up on the highway in Houston in the 2 and half years I’ve lived here, buzzard, if not meteorite, starts to sound reasonable. Truck load of frozen chickens, load of watermelons, load of giant metal plates, a number of burning tanker trucks, alligator, horses, reindeer, not to mention the everyday myriads of ladders, mattresses, stuffed animals, dogs,pedestrians and the occasional “high water event”. Add to that teens in F-150s and high rates of DUI and uninsured drives and you have a big, hot mess that no one should take lightly. I’m not suggesting Mr. Hale stop driving, just that his friends’ concerns may not be born of unreasonable paranoia. We did just get rated the third most dangerous drivers in the nation by Men’s Health!

  42. “I’m not suggesting Mr. Hale stop driving, just that his friends’ concerns may not be born of unreasonable paranoia.”

    Some concerns aren’t unreasonable paranoia. Concerns that are age and competence-irrelevant (like getting a flat tire or getting rear-ended by a large vehicle or getting into an accident evading a sudden hazard) are just excuses.

    What it sounds like is that they’re afraid to suggest that Mr. Hale might have legitimate reduction in capacities related to aging (vision, reaction times) because they’re afraid it would be “insulting.” So they make up other stuff that is really more insulting because they imply that older people can’t cope as well as younger people with things beyond their own control. And maybe also they don’t refer to specific capacities because those could be tested and they just don’t think Grandpa should be driving anymore, period.

  43. Good grief, over-protecting children I can almost understand, because they have so much life ahead of them, it really is a tragedy when they die unnecessarily from things that could have been prevented. But the elderly? If I want to do something when I’m 90 that could kill me, I’m damn well going to do it.

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