My mom, the DMV, and the elderly

The Washington Post published an article Sunday in the OUTLOOK opinion section about the quality of health care that three elderly women received. One lived in the U.S., the other in England and the last in France.  I’ll let you discover which country came in last when it came to providing  humane services. I’ve put a link to the story at the bottom of this post.
My grandmother lived with my parents for more than twenty years. She died in our home. She moved in a few years after my grandfather passed away when I was a teenager. I adored her and never thought it was unusual for a grandparent to live in the house.  Last fall, my parents decided it was time for them to sell their home in Spearfish, South Dakota, and move to Virginia to be with Patti and me. My dad is 89 and my mom is 90. Both are in great health. I’m very fortunate.
Having them here, has opened my eyes to how the elderly are treated. Most times when we go out, people are courteous – with one notable exception. When I took my parents to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to get identification cards, my mom was treated rudely.
I was so irritated I wrote a letter to Petula Dvorak, a Washington Post columnist. I didn’t tell her that I’d been a reporter at the Post because 23 years had passed since I’d worked there. Only after Dvorak interviewed my mom, did she make the connection.
I hate when people are marginalized – regardless of whether it is because they have a mental illness or are elderly.
Not long after Dvorak published her column, I came across a shocking statistic.  According to Time Magazine, “People age 65 and older have higher suicide rates than any other age group. The rate among U.S. white men 85 and older is six times the national average.”
I was stunned that men from the Greatest Generation had the highest suicide rates of all of us. Just something to consider.
Here’s the column about my mom.
After identity tangle at the DMV, she’ll keep her vote to herself today
By Petula Dvorak
The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
For the first time in about 70 years, the Republicans won’t be getting Jean Earley’s vote today.
Not because she has decided to change parties or she’s unsure about the candidates. No, Earley will shun the polls today because she has no faith anyone will show any compassion for her current identity crisis.
The 90-year-old Virginia newcomer was so scarred by the bureaucratic netherworld she encountered at the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles while trying to get her state identification card that she isn’t confident election officials would treat her any better at the polls.
“In my 90 years, I’ve never experienced anything like this,” she told me as we sat in her lovely new living room in Fairfax. She began to unfold the documents and explain the DMV experience that nearly undid her.
Earley and her husband recently moved to Virginia from the very small town of Spearfish, S.D., to be closer to their son and his family. It was also a plus to get away from South Dakota’s harsh winters.
Little did Earley realize the Siberia she would face when she entered the Fairfax/Westfields DMV office last month to get her new ID.
She was told to bring a birth certificate, a driver’s license and proof that she lived in Fairfax County.
She did this but was rejected because her birth certificate — a fragile document the color of very weak tea certifying that a baby girl named Jean Patterson entered the world in 1919 — didn’t have the married name that appeared on all her other documents: Jean Patterson Earley.
Well, yeah.
She pulled out her driver’s license, her Medicaid card, her bank card — all kinds of plastic that had both her maiden name and the surname of the Disciples of Christ minister she had married 68 years ago.
In the 1940s, she made the ever-so-slightly feminist decision to keep her maiden name as her middle name, a very Sandra Day O’Conneresque answer to the still-unresolved question of what women should do about their surnames when they get married.
Ever since suffragette and abolitionist Lucy Stone famously kept her maiden name when she was married in 1855, many American women have wondered whether to change, keep or hyphenate their surnames. Today, almost 90 percent of married women take their spouse’s name, a slight swing back in the pendulum from the 1970s, when about 80 percent of women did.
Some women who change their names do so after being crushed by the bureaucracy that comes with two names, kids and endless insurance forms, school enrollment papers, doctor’s offices and passports.
After living in several states and traveling overseas to at least a dozen countries, Earley had never encountered anyone who doubted her paperwork or identity.
Well, she admits that once, when she was pulled aside for random screening by the Transportation Security Agency before boarding a flight, she snapped at the latex-glove-wearing officer: “Terrorists don’t live to be 90.”
At the DMV office in Virginia, officials had no reason to suspect that the 90-year-old woman who was exhausted and near tears after waiting in those gray, metal chairs for an hour, on her fourth trip to get this taken care of, was doing anything nefarious.
“It’s a lack of something my generation calls common sense,” she said.
And compassion.
“I thought my birth certificate proved that I was a U.S. citizen,” she told me.
But that document, filed away so carefully for nearly a century, is basically invalid.
“It is not invalid — you just have to bring another document with your current name,” countered Melanie Stokes, spokeswoman for the Virginia DMV.
“We didn’t just randomly make that up. It’s the state law,” Stokes said. “And the Department of Motor Vehicles can’t make exceptions for certain people. We cannot just violate the law.”
Well, Earley countered, “that’s just stupid.”
I agree.
I understand that after Sept. 11, documentation is taken a little more seriously. But along with a U.S. terrorist watch list that grows by about 1,600 people every day, box-checking away our humanity at a suburban DMV office is not a real answer.
Earley returned to the DMV with an old passport that had expired years ago.
She waved it at the clerk who initially rejected her, forcing her to get back in line for another hour. Excruciating on 90-year-old bones, she said.
They finally accepted the expired passport and told her that her new ID would be in the mail soon.
At long last, the fancy new ID arrived late last week.
But now Earley doesn’t want to go all the way to her voting precinct and wait in a long line on a chilly fall day, only to be turned away because of another identity crisis.
Turns out, the persnickety DMV clerk who stuck to the letter of the law when it came to the whole ordeal spelled Earley’s name wrong. Earley is now Jean Patterson Early.
My mom was embarrassed by the attention. As for my Dad, he quipped, “We’ve only been in Virginia for a few weeks, and your mother already is causing trouble.”

Article from Sunday Outlook section about how the elderly are treated.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.

  • Joan Carpenter

    I’m posting this link to a similar story that happened in Canada on December 28,2009 which involved an 85-year-old Canadian woman who was asked to take her shoes off and unzip her pants as the security official prodded the woman’s stomach. I call that terrorizing our elderly!!!

    http://www.leaderpost.com/news/Security+told+woman+unzip+pants/2427408/story.html

    I was sickened by this story–it’s unimaginable that our elderly get treated this way. I’m all for increasing security worldwide but it must be done, as noted in this article, with “compassion” and “common sense.” Earley is right, terrorists don’t usually live that long!!!!

  • Joan Carpenter

    I’m posting this link to a similar story that happened in Canada on December 28,2009 which involved an 85-year-old Canadian woman who was asked to take her shoes off and unzip her pants as the security official prodded the woman’s stomach. I call that terrorizing our elderly!!!

    http://www.leaderpost.com/news/Security+told+woman+unzip+pants/2427408/story.html

    I was sickened by this story–it’s unimaginable that our elderly get treated this way. I’m all for increasing security worldwide but it must be done, as noted in this article, with “compassion” and “common sense.” Earley is right, terrorists don’t usually live that long!!!!

  • B. Jones

    I just checked out your blog, and read your most recent post, “My mom, the DMV, the elderly.” Regarding your statistics on the elderly, there’s another chilling one to note.

    Unlike young people (under 25 years) for whom the attempt to completion ratio for suicide is high, the elderly have fewer attempts for every completed suicide. I forget which book I read that in. It was probably either Colt’s “November of the soul: The enigma of suicide” or Jamison’s “Night falls fast: Understanding suicide.” And those at highest risk for suicide completion are those who have made an attempt.

    Okay, here it is from a different source:
    Williams, J. (2004). “50 facts that should change the world”. Cambridge: Icon Books Ltd. (ISBN: 1840466464)

    “The elderly are more likely to ‘complete’, with one suicide for every four attempts (compared with one in twenty overall). Contrary to popular belief, only a tiny percentage (2-4 per cent) have been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The problem is that depression in older people can often be dismissed as just a normal part of ageing, and as many as three-quarters of depressed older Americans do not receive the treatment they need.” (Williams, 2004, p.177)

    Williams’ cited the American Association of Suicidology (AAS) website (http://www.suicidology.org) for the above information,and I found some of it here (2006 National Statistics):

    American Association of Suicidology. (2009, June 23). Elderly suicide fact sheet. (Warning: PDF)

    “Although older adults attempt suicide less often than those in other age groups, they have a higher completion rate. For all ages combined, there is an estimated 1 suicide for every 25 attempted suicides. Among the young (15-24 years) there is an estimated 1 suicide for every 100-200 attempts. Over the age of 65, there is one estimated suicide for every 4 attempted suicides.”

    Then I’ve read other information (I think from Robert Sapolsky’s “Why zebras don’t get ulcers”) on how just having the responsibility of looking after a plant (a plant!) can lower stress levels in people who are elderly, improving both quality of life and longevity.

    I’d need to do more research to back this claim, but I think it points to a sad realization that our country, ironically, is quick to take away independence simply for the sake of convenience when it comes to elderly care.

  • B. Jones

    I just checked out your blog, and read your most recent post, “My mom, the DMV, the elderly.” Regarding your statistics on the elderly, there’s another chilling one to note.

    Unlike young people (under 25 years) for whom the attempt to completion ratio for suicide is high, the elderly have fewer attempts for every completed suicide. I forget which book I read that in. It was probably either Colt’s “November of the soul: The enigma of suicide” or Jamison’s “Night falls fast: Understanding suicide.” And those at highest risk for suicide completion are those who have made an attempt.

    Okay, here it is from a different source:
    Williams, J. (2004). “50 facts that should change the world”. Cambridge: Icon Books Ltd. (ISBN: 1840466464)

    “The elderly are more likely to ‘complete’, with one suicide for every four attempts (compared with one in twenty overall). Contrary to popular belief, only a tiny percentage (2-4 per cent) have been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The problem is that depression in older people can often be dismissed as just a normal part of ageing, and as many as three-quarters of depressed older Americans do not receive the treatment they need.” (Williams, 2004, p.177)

    Williams’ cited the American Association of Suicidology (AAS) website (http://www.suicidology.org) for the above information,and I found some of it here (2006 National Statistics):

    American Association of Suicidology. (2009, June 23). Elderly suicide fact sheet. (Warning: PDF)

    “Although older adults attempt suicide less often than those in other age groups, they have a higher completion rate. For all ages combined, there is an estimated 1 suicide for every 25 attempted suicides. Among the young (15-24 years) there is an estimated 1 suicide for every 100-200 attempts. Over the age of 65, there is one estimated suicide for every 4 attempted suicides.”

    Then I’ve read other information (I think from Robert Sapolsky’s “Why zebras don’t get ulcers”) on how just having the responsibility of looking after a plant (a plant!) can lower stress levels in people who are elderly, improving both quality of life and longevity.

    I’d need to do more research to back this claim, but I think it points to a sad realization that our country, ironically, is quick to take away independence simply for the sake of convenience when it comes to elderly care.

  • Elizabeth Flynn

    Amazing! Things do not change much from state to state! I moved my Mother here to Illinois from the suburban Philadelphia area when it became clear that she should not remain in “that big house, by herself”, any longer. She had an almost identicle experience at the Illinois DMV, while attempting to obtain the the highly coveted, picture ID card!

    As a society we ought to be ashamed of ourselves….our elderly deserve better. Funny, the older I become the more that fact hits home!

    I love your blogs, Pete. Thanks so much for sharing what goes on your mind!

  • Elizabeth Flynn

    Amazing! Things do not change much from state to state! I moved my Mother here to Illinois from the suburban Philadelphia area when it became clear that she should not remain in “that big house, by herself”, any longer. She had an almost identicle experience at the Illinois DMV, while attempting to obtain the the highly coveted, picture ID card!

    As a society we ought to be ashamed of ourselves….our elderly deserve better. Funny, the older I become the more that fact hits home!

    I love your blogs, Pete. Thanks so much for sharing what goes on your mind!

  • Maria

    Thank you for calling attention to how the elderly are treated.

    As a psychiatric patient at a hospital run by the State of New York I witnessed the care of a disabled elderly patient in the summer of 1998.

    Henry, a frail man, approximately 75 years old was brought to the hospital and frequently tied to his bed. When he was untied from his bed it was obvious Henry suffered from Parkinson’s Syndrome or some other kind of neurological disorder that made it difficult for him to walk. On several occasions I witnessed Henry collapse to the floor. My natural instincts were to run over and help him up, but in a psychiatric ward it is not allowed for patients to physically interact as it could be dangerous, so I would just watch on the edge of my seat concerned that he would not fall again trying to get up. It was obvious the nurses saw Henry fall to the floor yet they would either ignore him until he staggered to his feet or they would come out of their station, stand over him and yell “Henry, GET UP!” Not once did they every give him assistance.

    Meals were brought to the floor three times a day. Patients would go to the meal cart, find their tray and take it to the table to eat. Henry was physically and mentally unable to do this task so the nurses would get his tray, set it at the table and then lead Henry to his seat. They would guide him into the chair, then yell the command “Henry Eat!” and then walk away. Henry was placed in a chair directly in front of me. His dinner consisted of a chicken breast with a bone in it, a baked potato and a dessert wrapped in plastic. Henry obeyed the command, picked up the chicken breast and tried to bite into it. Since he had no teeth, he did not get very far. He put his head down on the plate of food and sat there for a while before getting up from his chair and then continued to stagger around the psychiatric ward until it was time for his medication and then strapped to his bed for the night. The nurses picked up his tray and sent it back, not realizing, or just not caring that Henry did not eat any food at all.

    Three days went by and I observed Henry being treated like this. The man was literally starving to death in a hospital that was charging $800 a day to care for him. Henry was unable to communicate in any way, he could make only sounds, no words, he made no recognition of your presence and would not respond to even a hello.

    I had been a psychiatric patient at this hospital in the past, as a regular the nurses knew me pretty well and seemed to like my sense of humor. They also recognized my sister who came to visit me as a being local TV news anchor. Frustrated by how Henry was being treated and feeling like I could not do anything about it, I pulled one of the male nurses aside and used my Master’s in the Art and Science of B.S to help Henry. I used the creative ability that comes along with having bipolar disorder to “fabricate” a story to Bill. I told him that my sister was working with Heraldo Rivera on exposing what goes on in psychiatric wards. Bill laughed at first, thinking I was just joking around with him. I looked at him very seriously and explained to him that I was just trying to protect him because he seemed like a really nice guy. I told him that I was part of the undercover investigation. He still laughed but I could see that he started to take the bait. I was painting quite a convincing picture. Coincidentally, the psychiatrist who I had been under the care of resigned unexpectedly from the hospital just before my admittance. He was still allowed privileges at the hospital so I was his only patient on the ward. I used this fact to convince him that my doctor was in on the undercover investigation too and since it was nearing the end he needed to resign.

    I asked Bill why Henry was even in a psychiatric ward. Bill said it was because he was depressed. I looked him straight in the eye and said then the psychiatrist who diagnosed him must also be a psychic. The man can’t even talk, how did he become assessed as being depressed? Bill then admitted Henry’s home had burned down and his family was not able to get him into a nursing home, the psychiatric ward was the only place until a nursing home became available. I told Bill that Henry had not eaten in three days and that if he was being treated in any other part of the hospital he would be on a soft food diet with someone assisting him. How could a person with no teeth be expected to eat a chicken breast? I also asked him why isn’t Henry getting any kind of therapy, or being seen by a neurologist, he could barely walk. Couldn’t someone at least help him up, rather than yell at him to get up on his own?

    The following day, Henry was treated like a king on 4C.

  • Maria

    Thank you for calling attention to how the elderly are treated.

    As a psychiatric patient at a hospital run by the State of New York I witnessed the care of a disabled elderly patient in the summer of 1998.

    Henry, a frail man, approximately 75 years old was brought to the hospital and frequently tied to his bed. When he was untied from his bed it was obvious Henry suffered from Parkinson’s Syndrome or some other kind of neurological disorder that made it difficult for him to walk. On several occasions I witnessed Henry collapse to the floor. My natural instincts were to run over and help him up, but in a psychiatric ward it is not allowed for patients to physically interact as it could be dangerous, so I would just watch on the edge of my seat concerned that he would not fall again trying to get up. It was obvious the nurses saw Henry fall to the floor yet they would either ignore him until he staggered to his feet or they would come out of their station, stand over him and yell “Henry, GET UP!” Not once did they every give him assistance.

    Meals were brought to the floor three times a day. Patients would go to the meal cart, find their tray and take it to the table to eat. Henry was physically and mentally unable to do this task so the nurses would get his tray, set it at the table and then lead Henry to his seat. They would guide him into the chair, then yell the command “Henry Eat!” and then walk away. Henry was placed in a chair directly in front of me. His dinner consisted of a chicken breast with a bone in it, a baked potato and a dessert wrapped in plastic. Henry obeyed the command, picked up the chicken breast and tried to bite into it. Since he had no teeth, he did not get very far. He put his head down on the plate of food and sat there for a while before getting up from his chair and then continued to stagger around the psychiatric ward until it was time for his medication and then strapped to his bed for the night. The nurses picked up his tray and sent it back, not realizing, or just not caring that Henry did not eat any food at all.

    Three days went by and I observed Henry being treated like this. The man was literally starving to death in a hospital that was charging $800 a day to care for him. Henry was unable to communicate in any way, he could make only sounds, no words, he made no recognition of your presence and would not respond to even a hello.

    I had been a psychiatric patient at this hospital in the past, as a regular the nurses knew me pretty well and seemed to like my sense of humor. They also recognized my sister who came to visit me as a being local TV news anchor. Frustrated by how Henry was being treated and feeling like I could not do anything about it, I pulled one of the male nurses aside and used my Master’s in the Art and Science of B.S to help Henry. I used the creative ability that comes along with having bipolar disorder to “fabricate” a story to Bill. I told him that my sister was working with Heraldo Rivera on exposing what goes on in psychiatric wards. Bill laughed at first, thinking I was just joking around with him. I looked at him very seriously and explained to him that I was just trying to protect him because he seemed like a really nice guy. I told him that I was part of the undercover investigation. He still laughed but I could see that he started to take the bait. I was painting quite a convincing picture. Coincidentally, the psychiatrist who I had been under the care of resigned unexpectedly from the hospital just before my admittance. He was still allowed privileges at the hospital so I was his only patient on the ward. I used this fact to convince him that my doctor was in on the undercover investigation too and since it was nearing the end he needed to resign.

    I asked Bill why Henry was even in a psychiatric ward. Bill said it was because he was depressed. I looked him straight in the eye and said then the psychiatrist who diagnosed him must also be a psychic. The man can’t even talk, how did he become assessed as being depressed? Bill then admitted Henry’s home had burned down and his family was not able to get him into a nursing home, the psychiatric ward was the only place until a nursing home became available. I told Bill that Henry had not eaten in three days and that if he was being treated in any other part of the hospital he would be on a soft food diet with someone assisting him. How could a person with no teeth be expected to eat a chicken breast? I also asked him why isn’t Henry getting any kind of therapy, or being seen by a neurologist, he could barely walk. Couldn’t someone at least help him up, rather than yell at him to get up on his own?

    The following day, Henry was treated like a king on 4C.