There are several pieces of paperwork I MUST get done today, there are a dozen blog posts I want to write spawned by sessions and conversations at SciO12, there are groceries to be bought if we're to eat tonight, and I have a migraine, so I really should be in bed with the lights off and an eye pillow draped over my forehead. Yet this bit of a topic has been nagging at the back of my skull for days (maybe it's the source of the migraine!) and I just have to write it out.
I had always wanted a Beetle but never thought I'd get one. I drove hand-me-down cars, or practical cheap things with good gas mileage, because cars are just transportation to get from point A to point B. And I can't tell them apart, aside from "this one's red and that one's black". Except for the Beetle. I loved the Beetle. I just didn't see myself buying one. I would drive my Mazda 323 till it died, and then get some equivalent replacement.
But in October of 2001, the world as we all had known it had fallen apart. There was no point in being practical. Or waiting for my car (or myself) to die. One day on a whim I walked into a dealership and there she was. Sapphire, the Uppity Blues Beetle. I fell in love, paid sticker price for my 2-year-old baby, and drove her off the lot.
Kids waved at me, other Beetle drivers honked their horns, perfect strangers asked me how I liked driving that Beetle. It was a fun car. It was also a pain in the ass. The electrical system had a mind of its own, little plastic bits and buttons periodically fell off and had to be glued back on, the glove box door, for Pete's sake, had to be replaced. Sapphire was high maintenance, that's for sure. But I loved her. And my mom loved her, too - because she had leather seats that were easy to slide across, and because she had a bar across the glove box area that mom could grab onto when she was getting into the car. With the back seats down, there was plenty of room to stash mom's wheelchair and her walker, too, plus any other stuff we needed to take along for the day. You had to life the wheelchair over the rear lip when putting it in or taking it out, but all in all, Sapphire was a pretty darn good eldermobile.
Sometimes I flew to see mom rather than drive and then I had to rent a car. Any car with cloth seats was a loser right from the start. Elderly people just cannot easily scooch and slide across a cloth seat. Leather or faux-leather is what they need. Sometimes I would get a PT Cruiser and my mom would be ecstatic. It had the handy grab bar like my Beetle (see here, scroll down). It was just the right height - not too high, so easy to step into, and not too low, so easy to get out of. Definitely plenty of room to stash the chair, walker, and other gear.
One sad day, Sapphire got creamed by an asshole in a big black SUV doing 50 mph on the shoulder of the road who literally ran right over top of my car to get back on the road. Maybe you could have fixed her, for the price of 1.5 new cars or so. The insurance company handed me a check and Sapphire got hauled away to be cut up for parts.
Now I needed a new car and I was in a pickle. One, I don't like making decisions about big purchases like this. Two, I needed to decide relatively quickly because I had no car. Three, I had very specific needs I wanted my new car to satisfy. Four, I'd had Sapphire for almost ten years and had paid absolutely no attention to cars during that time. I had no idea what was out there, how much cars cost, where to even start looking.
Naturally, I began to crowdsource a solution to my problem. Everyone had great advice to offer. All kinds of advice. I had more options to consider than I could keep track of. Mom was not offering "advice" - she knew what worked for her and told me to just go buy a PT Cruiser. During the car search time I twice rented a Chevy HHR to go see mom. She liked it almost as much as the PT Cruiser except it had no handy grab bar. It did get great gas mileage and I could get the wheelchair in the back without putting the seats down if I had to, which meant I could take both mom and Aunt Betty to the Ice Plant for lunch. So that was a bonus. Mom still favored the PT.
I went to dealerships, I looked at cars, I test drove cars. I looked at the Toyota Matrix, RAV 4, and Prius, the Scion xB, the Kia Soul and Sportage, the Mazda 5 Minivan, the Chevy HHR, the PT Cruiser, the Subaru Impreza and Outback, and I don't remember what all else. I looked at new and used cars. I made lists and did comparisons. I test drove, I did online research, I made up my mind, and then I started all over again.
I felt the openings on the Matrix and Impreza were too small - too hard for stiff bodies to get in and out. Not enough storage space in a Prius, and the RAV 4 and Mazda 5 seemed too high of a step-in, as did the Sportage. I liked the Kia Soul a lot, but ultimately felt its rear opening was a bit too small - didn't want to have to fight to put a wheelchair in the back. I was really leaning toward the HHR because I had driven it and liked it, and the gas mileage was fantastic but Mr. Z was very set against it. He felt the interior looked a little too cheesy, was concerned about plastic parts falling off a la the Beetle, and wondered how resale value would hold up. I couldn't find an HHR or a PT with leather heated seats, which I really wanted. In the end I bought a used Subaru Outback which had every feature I wanted save amazing gas mileage. It has leather seats, and seat heaters - very comforting to mom's achy back in cold weather. It has dual climate control so she can be toasty and I can be cool or vice versa. The back just swallows up her wheelchair with room to spare - I've put her transport chair and her walker in there with it as well - and there is no lip to lift it over. Furthermore, the opening of the back is low, so one does not have to hoist the heavy equipment up high. The back is spacious enough to hold all the gear without putting seats down so I can take mom and Aunt Betty together to lunch. (Or my mother- and father-in-law.) There are two great cup holders in between the driver and passenger seats, as well as a spacious storage box - roomy enough for mom's special sunglasses or her water bottle. Alas, there is no handy grab bar across the front but because of the height of the passenger seat, mom can back up to the seat, sit down, grab the handle above the door, and swing her legs into the car. The door opening is large enough for her to do this and for me to assist her. The car warms up quickly in cool weather, cools down quickly in summer heat. And it handles fantastically over the mountains between where I live and where mom is.
The AARP offers some advice to caregivers on choosing cars, but I did not find it particularly helpful. It is very general, and some of the car models they mention I would consider to be difficult for elderly people to enter and exit. If you have narrowed you search for a car down to two or at most three vehicles, the best thing to do would be to take your elderly person along with you and let them try getting in and out of the car. See for yourself how easy it is to put the wheelchair or transport chair or other gear into the car. I was not able to do this because mom and I live so far apart so I had to measure and guess.
Another good thing to know is that if you have found a car that you think will work for you, but it doesn't come with leather seats, you can get leather covers made for them at a reasonable price. A good site for used car information is TrueDelta.
For some years now, car makers have finally become aware that women drive cars and that kids are often in the cars whether women or men are driving. It would be nice, as our population rapidly ages, if they began to pay some special attention to car design that works well for caregivers and the elderly people they transport. Or caregivers and the not-so-elderly but people with disabilities that need transport. Universal design, is what I'm asking for. We're starting to get there in home and apartment design. But cars are still things we are supposed to fall in love with, things that make a statement about us. Not practical things that can help us help anyone get from point A to point B.
I loved my Beetle like a teenager - it was shiny, it looked cute - but I love my Subaru for its comfort and functionality. It annoys me when people ask why I got such a boring car or why I'm driving a mom-mobile. If my car is supposed to make a statement about me, then my car says I like old people and I care about their needs. My car is an eldermobile. I get the most compliments on my car when I am helping my mom in or out of it outside the assisted living home. People there look at cars in a different way. And my mom always says proudly in a way that makes me want to cry, "she bought this car just for me!" I'm guessing I won't see Subaru advertize anytime soon how great its Outback is for transporting old people, because we live in a youth culture, and so the Outback must be about youthful adventurous types leaving it all behind and getting to the rugged outdoors. It could be both, if our culture didn't look upon the elderly with so much fear and loathing.
Car makers are selling us youth and sex - that's why there are always so many hot babes draped over the vehicles in ads and at car shows - and they don't imagine anyone is going to want an eldermobile. No, the car is supposed to help you stave off age and death, not transport it to the cardiologist. I don't imagine we'll be seeing eldermobiles on the market anytime soon.