- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2007

Once an adult, twice a child, the old wives’ wit goes. If you live long enough, you might be unfortunate enough to leave this world the way you entered it: needing diapers.

Most senior citizens do their best to maintain as much of their freedom and dignity as they can until that unhappy helpless moment arrives. They don’t need meddlesome legislators to drive them to dependence prematurely.

Besides, what constitutes “elderly” anyway? Recently I was forced to ponder this burning baby boomer’s question and decided that it really boils down to a matter of perception.

I heard a report of “an elderly woman’s” body being found after a fire. She was 60. Sixty is elderly? Sure, if you are a 20-something television copywriter; not if you are a 50-something columnist.

Still, young marketers in this youthful, health-conscious era try to sell us on an “active adult” image in which 60 is the new 40, 50 is the new 30 and so on. Then reality bites, usually when you can’t get your achy bones out of bed in the morning. Or you figure out on your own that it’s best to avoid driving at the height of rush hour. Age, they wistfully argue, is nothing but a number.

But that magic senior number, set at 75 by the District’s Department of Motor Vehicles, is just plain arbitrary.

Onerous laws that present unnecessary hurdles, such as the rigorous requirements and tests placed on D.C. seniors to renew their driver’s licenses, often do more harm than the good that is intended. And the randomly imposed number constitutes discriminatory ageism on its face.

A woman at her 75th birthday party may look younger and healthier than a woman 20 years her junior. You read about these lively people, watch them and envy some of them every day.

Take Barbara Hillary, a 75-year-old cancer survivor from Arverne, N.Y., who last month became the first black woman recorded to reach the North Pole. “She’s a headstrong woman. You don’t tell her no about too many things,” the adventure tour guide told the Associated Press.

I have a petite 72-year-old aunt, Constance Yvonne, who you’d never guess is a day over 50. I took her on a business trip with me last month, and she put me to shame. She hopped out of bed at 7 a.m. to follow her daily television exercise guru, Denise Austin, while I was still bumping into furniture foraging for coffee.

She volunteers to drive to the nursing home to visit her sisters — always before 3 p.m. to beat the evening rush hour — because “I want to keep doing things I want to do for as long as I can, and I don’t want to be a burden on anybody.”

It is nearly impossible to guess the ages of the patients at what they now call “a rehabilitation center” judging by their appearances, pain and illness, or varying degrees of motor skills. You’d need to read their charts or give appropriate tests to be sure.

Last year, after several high-profile crashes involving elderly drivers — mostly octogenarians, and none in the nation’s capital — D.C. officials enacted the most stringent renewal regulations in the country for older motorists. Not to mention that some of these requirements — such as a doctor’s exam or having to rent a car that has a hand brake located between the driver and the examiner — is costly.

As expected, the D.C. Council received complaints after the DMV renewal regulations were increased last May. The AARP and AAA told the Associated Press that the agency is discriminating against the elderly.

“It makes you paranoid to have to go through all that mess again, especially when you’ve already done it, taken the test and passed it … and when you have not done anything wrong,” said my Aunt Elaine, another relative who has crossed the 75 threshold.

A retired federal government worker who has lived in Northeast for longer than I’ve been alive, Aunt Elaine said she is not looking forward to going through the District’s testing process to renew her license, especially after the difficulties her husband encountered earlier this year.

“I really hope they straighten it out,” she said, adding that providing a doctor’s report or submitting to an eye exam “is fine.” It’s the road test and the written test that she thinks are unnecessary. If road safety is the only issue, then drivers of all ages should submit to similar stringent requirements, or none at all. DMV officials should be more concerned with repeat offenders and those who rack up tickets and other infractions.

Older D.C. drivers were forced to take a road test and a written test every five years for renewals, which no other state requires. Only Illinois and New Hampshire require road tests. As it is, city drivers older than 70 already were required to appear in person to renew their licenses in order to take a reflex test and an eye exam in addition to submitting documentation from a physician that they are able to drive.

This week, the D.C. Council is likely to pass legislation that prohibits the DMV from requiring tests based solely on an adult’s age. This welcome change will be a good move to keep active adults from facing a second infantile dependency prematurely.

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