Aging in Place: Symbolic Cars

The automobile is an American cultural symbol.

~Raymond Loewy

Aging in Place 

Across America there is a phenomenon quietly going on in lonely driveways and garages from coast-to-coast. Resting and lost in suburbia, vintage automobiles sit and wait in vain for their aging owners to fire them up once again. But that never seems to happen, year-after-year she sits and waits…and waits…and waits…

We who study aging (aka Gerontologist) call them “Symbolic Cars” because they are symbols of a time long past when the owners were younger, and driving was fundamental to who they were (are). These 4,000+ pounds of American steel represented not just the American Dream of a rising middle class and American exceptionalism, but that defining element of FREEDOM.  Rugged Individualism that built this country (part myth) was symbolized in chrome bumpers, rag-tops, and tail fins; 25 cent a gallon gasoline fueled this meme stoking the dreams of the WWII generation as well as legions of baby boomer off-spring.

Continuity of Self

It’s a symptom of a gerontological theory called “Continuity of Self” where older adults will attempt to maintain some stable identity during times of great change and loss that occurs with getting older. The widower who lives alone will not part with his rusting Buick, no matter how compelling your plea to turn her into a RatRod…It’s not going to happen in his lifetime. The reason, well, that bucket of rust once afforded encounters of romance at the drive-in, and later Sunday drives with the family–not to mention getting to the plant on time for yet another work week.

The old car has become a meaningful object and an emotional attachment has formed between rust and aging skin that only death do they part. In his mind he sees himself sliding the keys into the ignition, firing her up, and driving off into the sunset. This will most likely never happen, but it doesn’t matter, the IDEA of it is what maintains a sense of self that supports his identity.

So, if you see a “Symbolic Car” in a driveway, just know what you’re up against should you have designs on a car project. Approach with caution and develop a relationship first. See if He’ll talk about it, or maybe you can offer to help fixer up if you have the time. You’ll learn about carburetors, history, and more than you could ever imagine about yourself…


PBS News Hour How Older Adults Can OverCome Loneliness 

A Rusty Old American Dream

Note: “Rugged Individualism” is what makes aging in place a challenge with this same generation/s. Independence is a myth, it’s really inter-dependence that makes it possible 😉

Gerontology the basics

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