Should An 87-Year-Old Still Be Driving?

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Acts of bravery can be large or small, and sometimes so infinitesimal that they pass without notice. I want to share one of those small moments that occurred without fanfare but entailed the same courage that most such brave actions do. On a cloudless March afternoon, my father did something that thousands of others do every day without much thought. For him, it caused several sleepless nights and the risk of losing his independence.

Let me tell you about my dad: He served in the U.S. Air Force for 30 years, rising up through the ranks to full colonel. This was no small feat for a man born the year of the Great Wall Street Crash into a struggling family on the Lower East Side of New York. His charm and intellect won him champions and a law degree, financed by the government. An obligation to pay it back through military service turned into a much-loved career and, eventually, retirement in his early 50s. He and my mom have spent those retirement years traveling the world, tandem biking, and hanging out with their children and grandchildren.

One of the constants in his life has been my father's eagerness to drive to destinations near and far. Now in his upper 80s, my dad's concession to his age involved buying a car equipped with all the latest safety equipment. It sounds alarms if he drifts over the center line or attempts to pass a car when it is unsafe. It automatically brakes if he edges too close to the car in front of him. That car is an old person's best friend. And, to be fair, my father has had only one accident in the past decade when he sideswiped another vehicle.

As we all know, aging robs us of some of our keener senses and timing. My father rarely drives after dark or to unfamiliar places, and he is uncomfortable driving in large bustling cities. He has self-limited his driving voluntarily and we are all grateful for that. But the question arose: Should a man who is 87 be driving at all? His children have all discussed this with him and my non-driving mother, and he hates giving up the ability to go to restaurants or shops or just "out."

Now we come to the bravery part of this story. After months of family discussions, my dad finally agreed to sign up for a voluntary driver's assessment provided by the New Jersey township in which he lives. We all knew that by failing the test, he would have to relinquish his driver's license. I'm not sure any of us expected him to pass it. Which is why, this week, he sat with several family members in a Japanese restaurant a few miles from where the test would take place, full of doubt and trepidation. "Why did I volunteer to do this?" he asked more than once. We all wondered what the test would entail, particularly since the instructions said the test could take several hours or even days.

And yet we all needed to know whether it was safe for him to be on the road, for himself and my mom and for other drivers. My sister and I had discussed alternative methods for getting him places -- Uber, a cab service, perhaps senior services where he lives. But we also knew it would be a huge step toward letting go of the man he is and has been. The small indignities of aging can be difficult for stubborn people like him, and the larger ones can be horrific.

After lunch, he headed off for the test -- looking like he had lost his best friend -- with my brother-in-law, Edgar. Over the course of the next few hours, Edgar texted: So far he's doing well. Passed his vision test with flying colors. Has good sensation and proprioception of his feet. Memory test good: named 23 animals in one minute. Got 29 out of 30 in memory test. He's in a car that says Student Driver on it. It's like he's in high school now.

Three hours later, he returned home triumphantly. He had passed an intensive exam with flying colors. He had risked losing his license but instead discovered that he retains many of the abilities that made him an amazing lawyer as well as a safe driver. He will continue to self-limit his trips and we will still keep a vigilant eye on his driving. Eighty-seven is still 87. But I am so very proud that he volunteered to be tested, even knowing the consequences.

I grew up knowing my father was brave, a Papa Bear who protected his family and a man unafraid to face the world. Now, late in his life, he has showed all of us that we are never too old or infallible to do something that scares us. And that even the smallest act of courage must be acknowledged. Now I can say to him what he said to me so many years ago: Congratulations! You passed your driving test!

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