Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The End of a Long Road

My father-in-law, Melvin, was an accomplished scientist. He remains one of the more highly published researchers at the Oregon State University’s school of Agriculture. He has traveled the globe collecting rare plants and was instrumental in setting up the National Clonal Germplasm Repository network; a virtual Noah’s Arch of plant genetic material. The first was in Corvallis – there are now repositories all over the globe.

But this great mind at age 88 is being ravaged by the early stages of Alzheimer's. Mel can recall the intimate details of how he discovered the treatment for the plant disease “Pear Decline” but he cannot remember what he did yesterday… or even earlier that day.

Mel learned to drive his Dad’s Model-T as a kid. As he tells it, the old rig wouldn’t make it over Utah’s LaSalle mountains in one run. He and his brother would sit in the back of the truck with a big rock between them. As the T chugged up the hill and over-heated, steam boiling from the radiator, the brothers would jump out and put the rock behind the back wheel to keep it from rolling back down the hill. Once it had cooled down, they would grab the rock and chug up the hill as far as they could go, repeating the process chocking the tire of the overheated T with the rock until they reached the summit.

Two weeks ago while on his way back from his monthly Hort department coffee meeting with other retired professors and technicians, Mel was involved in a car accident. Fortunately for all involved, nobody was injured. But Mel’s car was totaled; too old to be repaired, it ended up being scrapped. Mel later received a letter from the Department of Motor Vehicles – he would need to be tested for his continuing ability to drive or lose his license.

Mel recognizes his mental faculties are in decline so after a day of mulling it over, he decided the best thing to do was surrender his driver’s license. This decision was a monumental one for Mel; it marked a milestone in his life… and a blatant reminder that he doesn’t have many more milestones more to go.

In many ways the decision was an easy one for him. Mel's“world” has been rapidly shrinking; he could no longer see to drive at night and he only remembers how to get to a few places like his church or the university campus. He doesn’t remember how to get to our house or even to his wife’s grave site.

Despite the stereotypical metaphor of the DMV as an example of inefficient government bureaucracy, his business with the agency went smoothly and courteously. No long lines or horrendous wait. A few minutes later, when Mel handed the clerk his paperwork with the box checked that he was voluntarily giving up his driving privileges, he told her: “I’ve been driving for seventy-three years and four months.”

He will get his new color picture state ID card in the mail.


DJan said...

It's a hard one: giving up a driver's license after all those years, but truth be told, most people wait way too long to do it. If we had a better public transit system, it might not be so hard. In the UK, everyone over 60 rides the bus for free, and they are everywhere.

But I'm hoping it will be a few years before I have to surrender my own. I don't drive at night very often any more and I'm only 68.

Nance said...

Aw, man, Robert. This brought tears. I wish I could pump his hand and thank him for his good work, his service to the future, and just for being a worthy and contributing human being.

I wish I could relieve him of his knowledge of what's happening, too. But we can't do that. And, oh my, doesn't it take so MUCH to be a human being?!

Hug him for me and twice for yourself.

Anonymous said...

It is a huge loss to folks when they do not drive. I think it is the hardest part of my mom's post-stroke life. She was the driver for everyone else. Now she is dependent on others.
I am so impressed that he decided to give it up voluntarily. What a guy. It would have been horrible to have someone hurt in an accident.
How will he get around now?

Jayne said...

I'm sure it was a hard decision for Mel, but wise. Last week an 85 year old woman, mistaking the gas pedal for the break, crashed into a retail building that I manage. Fortunately, no one was hurt. No matter the age, it's a harsh awakening when we realize we can no longer do things that were once so natural, second nature.
Thank goodness Mel is safe. He sounds like a fascinating man. I hope he's able to tell old stories, holding on to those memories, for a while longer.

adrielleroyale said...

That is so sad.. He sounds like a good man who has lived well. 88 is too young for such a spry mind to have to decline :(

Tom Sightings said...

It is a big step, but seems like a smart move for him at this point. Remember, you don't have to have a license to enjoy life. Heck, my son lives in the hippest part of Brooklyn, living the 20-something life with late nights, parties, music and funky restaurants ... and he doesn't have a car. Doesn't slow him down.

(And I already hate to drive at night, and am the slowest person on the road, and in fact kind of look forward to the day when I don't have to be the one getting behind the wheel.)

Robert the Skeptic said...

DJan Night driving is the first to go, apparently.

Nance Mel is that WWII generation, not really the "hugging" type.. but yes, we let him know he is loved and appreciated. Thanks. :)

BackRow Nancy and her sisters volunteer to drive him around. He has a grocery store two blocks away he can walk to and his friends will pick him up and take him to church. He walks twice a day but feels safe at home. We'll get by.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Jayne You know there is a lot of old people who learned to drive with a clutch and who now drive automatics with the right foot on the gas and the left on the brake. BAD HABIT. I believe most of those kinds of crashes are them pressing both feet to the floor.

Adrielle That is the sad thing, his body is still in good shape and he has good genes, longevity runs in his family and virtually no coronary artery disease. It will be his mind that takes him. Very sad.

Tom My 31 y/o daughter doesn't have a car, she scoots around town on a bicycle and motor scooter. But then she is a dedicated urbanite (and her boyfriend has a car). But between my wife and me, I do most of the night driving.

Paul said...

God bless...:-)

billy pilgrim said...

my dad's 89 and heading in the same direction. he can recite shakespeare but has a hard time remembering what he did yesterday. he continues to drive but only to familiar places.

John Myste said...

It is a testament to something. I have no idea how long I have been driving.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Billy Not unusual, those long-established patterns of local geography are well imprinted in long-term memory.

The other part Mel suffers significant degradation is in "Executive Function", the ability to problem-solve on a basic level. So given the task of having to go to a different location, our fathers would have a difficult time figuring out how to accomplish that task.

John HOPEFULLY your driving career does not end in sudden impact. Stay safe, my friend.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Aging takes a sort of courage we never imagined when young. Stepping forward with grace and wisdom indicates he is still the man he was. I'm glad the accident caused no bodily harm. Not the hugging type? Then I, too, extend my good wishes and regard for a life of creative intelligence. My best to you all.

TechnoBabe said...

Best wishes to Mel for many more lucid and entertaining days, even if he is not going to be the designated driver any longer. Good news that no one was hurt in the crash.

KleinsteMotte said...

He was wise to o the right thing.
I sense a worry in the words you laid out so eloquently.
I imagine we all have to follow that unknown road and hope for a reasonable outcome. I just spent a week living as a guest in a senior independent living establishment where young is considered 85. Many are in the 89 to 99 range, still very fit and active but they have given up driving.

Jerry said...

This was indeed a monumental, rational and humbling decision. Giving up ones right to drive is acknowledging that it was time to lose his freedom. He knew, he understood, and he decided.

Alzheimer's is horrific disease, especially since it progresses slowly and inexorably. I sense that he is facing his future with calm grace. I would hope that I could.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Marylinn We are pleased that he is accepting his declining health with rationality and dignity.

TechnoBabe Yes, this panned out in the best possible way.

KleinsteMotte We have brought Mel to a couple of assisted living facilities. He still wants to remain in his own home for now. Who can blame him!

Jerry Mel is quietly concerned. His body is otherwise healthy and he has longevity in his family. It will be his mind that will go before all else fails.

secret agent woman said...

I was just talking today with a patient about the need for husband to give up his driving, and how to best approach that. Not easy, especially where I live - no public transportation at all.