I’ve been asking myself this question in one form or another ever since I was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In California, doctors must report to county health departments if the driver’s symptoms are “severe enough to impair a person’s ability to operate a motor vehicle.” Massachusetts’ regulations are less clear-cut, but I understand that the writing is on the wall: My days behind the wheel are likely numbered.
Last fall, this wasn’t the case. I was still occasionally driving my daughter to her school, a 28-mile round trip, and I also navigated my way on Route 128 in heavy traffic en route to an evening conference in Waltham. Returning from Thanksgiving in Rhode Island, Paula observed my driving, and I provided her with no evidence that my highway driving skills were in decline. I also had my peripheral vision tested—over time, people with Alzheimer’s are likely to experience difficulty at the margins of their vision, making driving unwise. The test I underwent indicated that my peripheral vision was fully intact.
But Alzheimer’s is a one-way disease; only the pace of the disease is in question. According to my neuropsychologist, who evaluated me just a few months ago, I scored very low in areas such as attention span and short-term memory. And spatial reasoning—how to get from Point A to Point B—has always been a weakness of mine, and is getting worse. My doctor indicated that if I wanted to continue driving, I should line up a driving exam as soon as possible. But that may not be worth the trouble. In recent weeks, I’ve noticed trouble with parallel parking—an essential skill on a street where most people don’t have access to off-street parking.
And, as I’ve often reminded Paula, I haven’t had an accident since October 1984, when I hit a slippery patch of dead foliage, and clipped a car’s rear quarter-panel. I’d like to keep my no-accident streak intact. And the only certain way to achieve this goal is to not drive.
There is a second reason why I’m not particularly disturbed about the likelihood of giving up driving. The autumn before I first visited Boston, I spent the fall term in what was then West Germany, in the ancient city of Cologne, home of the 516-foot cathedral that bombers spared when almost everything else was flattened. My roommate and I lived with a family in a suburb on the east side of the Rhine, but the commuter-train was unfailingly on time, delivering us within a short walk to our school. Eight years later, when Paula and I were living in Hamburg, we rarely rode in a car, let alone drive one. The city’s gliding subways were so precisely calibrated that, more often than not, our wait for the connecting train was less than a minute. Sometimes the synchronization was perfect, as if the train conductors were directing an austerely modernist symphony, composed by Philip Glass.
One of the many reasons I wanted to live in Boston in the first place was that the city was presumed to be the most “European” of American cities, with its graceful Back Bay brownstones, a stunningly beautiful state capitol topping Beacon Hill, the quirkiest baseball stadium on the face of the earth, a history that dates to 1630, and, as of 1984, when I first visited, a good deal of neighborhood ethnic strife, spurred by the busing crisis of the previous decade.
And never have I valued my adopted city more than I do now. Technically, I don’t live in Boston. Paula and I reside in neighboring Somerville, which, with roughly 79,000 residents in 4.1 square miles, is one of the nation’s most densely populated municipalities. I can walk to Harvard Square in twenty minutes, but I am rarely aware when I’ve crossed the city boundary—many homeowners and businesses pay property taxes to each city, on a pro-rated basis.
There is no other place where I would rather live. This is not a recent sentiment. I’ve felt so for years, but nowadays I have another reason to love the city. I know it intimately. Brisk walking is one of the ways I get my exercise—bicycling is another—and so long as I stay within familiar territory, there is little chance that I will lose my way.
Note: I will be on vacation for much of the next two weeks, and this will be my last blogpost until at least Friday, September 30. I hope to post fresh material within the first several days of October.
Also: On Sunday, Sept. 25, Paula will be participating in the Walk to End Alzheimer's. People were very generous in sponsoring me in the Ride for Alzheimer's research in June. If anyone would like to sponsor Paula in her walk, please visit my Facebook page for a link to the donation site.