Ichabod's Kin
A place for politics, pop culture, and social issues

Is “Dead” the “New 75”?

Older drivers are crashing into everything and everybody while bills flood legislatures and town councils to require regular driving exams and dire threats to loss of license.

Our youth-obsessed society forgets that aging is inexorable, regardless of face lifts and botox, and we have boldly regrouped life stages–“50 is the new 35,” and “70 is the new 50.” I worry that this cuts both ways: will “dead” become the “new 75″?

Comedian George Carlin said the only time in life we like to get older is childhood–“I’m not nine, I’m nine-and-a-half.” At the other end, we start going backwards and say, “I just turned 92,” though the next birthday may loom near.

The late systems analyst Edwin Friedman used to say that anxiety hovers over society like a cloud, looking for a place to land–usually at any rumor or sensational news report. Currently, the elderly are our panic buttons. They didn’t create dangerous driving, of course; when not on their case, our outrage is directed at teenage drivers.

Fatal teen accidents seem to involve the driver and friends, while the elderly often emerge unscathed after plowing into crowds of strangers or banging into other cars. Maybe that’s what bothers us: if they’re gonna kill somebody, let them kill themselves–as if that’s a real answer to the problem. Keep in mind that all other auto fatalities are caused by the rest of us–the great, dangerous population between teenage and old age.

What our excuse is, I’m not sure, except that we have more than a few. With teenagers it involves high speed and drugs (I include alcohol among drugs and consider the “difference” a bogus attempt to create two classes of users and abusers, one supposedly tolerable and excusable, the other not), while the elderly have issues of impairment–both mental and physical. The rest of us are guilty of all these and more, not to mention driving long after having lost our licenses for a multitude of reasons.

In states like Florida, people are ambivalent about the aged, not knowing whether to tolerate, or bemoan, their presence. Of course old folks there are a huge voting bloc, so there’s no pushing them around. Besides hazardous driving, they create all sorts of minor inconveniences, such as in parking areas where, having exited their own cars, they walk right down the middle of the driving lanes, clueless to be holding up lines of other autos. To shout at them is useless, since in their deafness they can’t hear you. On a lighter side is the spectacle of the “headless driver,” so shrunken as to appear that the car is unoccupied, save for hands detectable on the steering wheel.

But try putting yourself in their shoes: Giving up one’s car, and its freedom of mobility, is just another loss of control over one’s life, and a scary sign that the world is closing in on them. As Seinfeld quipped, we spend our lives looking for the right-sized moving box and, once we find it–we’re in it. Towns have fewer sidewalks, and existing ones are uneven and otherwise dangerous, given that Twenty-through-Sixty-somethings drive like hell on wheels, and any slight inattention while driving (cell phones and that goddam texting) can knock pedestrians of any age right off their mortal coils.

The elderly aren’t fond of group transportation for the same reasons we all aren’t–having to wait for pickup totally sucks, then there’s the lack of privacy and independence: a nonagenarian playing the Stones on iTunes would be hugely unwelcome on the senior bus (but didn’t I say old folks can’t hear?–well, somehow, they can when they want to–again, like the rest of us).  And if they lean on friends or family, they know it takes a re-evaluation of relationships on the part of everybody. What a drag we think they are–and don’t think they don’t know it.

The problem isn’t just older drivers, it’s all of us. Communities don’t really tackle such matters together because the mere mention of senior centers that offer quality of life, or real transportation solutions, get derailed, tabled, or have to wait “till the economy improves”–just like schools and students.

In the meantime, the elderly put up with horn-honking and scape-goating–not to mention abusive signs and language. If they were young again, they could probably punch the lights out of us younger whippersnappers.

If it takes an entire village to raise kids, it takes one to care for and about the aged, and to help them maintain dignity and self-respect.

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