During a senior citizen luncheon recently, talk turned to what it means to be an independent senior. Does it mean that when your kids suggest you sign up for a medical alert system, you turn them down by saying, “I’m too independent for that”? Or, does it mean that as a senior, you make mature decisions about your own safety? My mother, in the days before such aids became popular, changed my conception of what it means to be a truly independent senior.

In her mid-80s, she lived in New Jersey in her own apartment and was driving her own car. I wondered how she would take to suggestions about getting rid of both when the time came. She had always been a very independent force in our family.

We kept in daily contact by phone. One day, the news turned alarming. “I sold my car yesterday,” she announced. “My right eye got so bad that a man stepped off the curb and I didn’t see him. I could have killed him. I can’t be taking chances anymore. So I sold my car to my auto mechanic.”

I was stunned. I hadn’t realized that her eye was going blind. If she couldn’t drive anymore, how would she get to places like the supermarket, pharmacy and doctor’s office? And that burning of all questions: How could I keep her safe with this distance between us? I quickly decided to spend an extended visit with her. It became obvious, soon after I arrived, that her current living situation was not a safe one.

When I pointed out the pitfalls, Mother protested some but then agreed to come back with me to Buffalo and try out an assisted living arrangement in a facility offering a short-term respite care program. Relaxing into the familiarity of a routine again, she enjoyed being served meals, having her laundry done and singing familiar hymns with others around a piano. She was in a safe place with people who wanted the best for her. The fit was so comfortable, two weeks stretched into 11 years.

Now that my husband and I are approaching that age, we are beginning to hear “falling” stories: seniors who have tumbled over uneven sidewalks or fallen in their bathrooms or garages; others getting accidently locked out of their homes; being helpless in some way with no one around to help.

After several experiences himself, my husband resisted ways to stay independent. A cellphone did not appeal to him. When he wanted to call me, he stated, he would simply find a phone. That doesn’t happen conveniently anymore and he slowly saw the wisdom of being able to call home – or 911, if need be – quickly. Finally buying a cellphone, he promised to wear it everywhere every day. It helped when he bought a holster to put it in. A Lone Ranger fan since he was a Southern California kid, while attaching it to his belt, he related, “I haven’t worn a holster since I was 7; didn’t think I would again.” I could almost see Tonto smiling in the background.

Mother taught me a lesson I’ll take into my own elderly days. While I was busy worrying about her safety, she was way ahead of me. She gave up her car when she realized its danger, then moved into a home that took care of her needs. Being independent to my mother meant that she was making her own plans for her safety. I always knew she was smart, but now I know she was wise beyond all measure.