Driving is a way of life

Ninety-three-year-old Jerry MacNeil didn’t get his license until he was in his 30s.

“Nobody had cars back then,” he said.

It was just after the Second World War had ended. Young men and women were coming back to try and find jobs, but without any real skills, they were hard to come by.

“I didn’t have the money for a license,” he said.

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Jerry MacNeil, 93, holds up a photo of him in his younger years. He didn’t get his license until he came home from Europe following WWII.

Even when he married his wife, Mary, in 1951, he still didn’t have his license.

They had to take the bus for their honeymoon – they went to Kentville to “stay in the big hotel out there.”

Only a few years later, everyone started getting cars. By 1953, MacNeil found the money to take his driving test, got his license and financed his first car – a 1953 Chevrolet Impala.

Although he and his wife lived in the city, they went everywhere in that car.

They’d take driving vacations to Maine or New Hampshire, sometimes to Montreal or Toronto.

“All long weekends we went up to Cape Breton,” he said. Mary had a brother there, so they’d go to visit.

“You needed a car,” he said.

MacNeil doesn’t need a car now though. Before Mary’s death last year, the couple moved from their home on Novalea Drive, where they lived for 62 years, into The Berkeley, a retirement residence in Halifax’s North End.

MacNeil has walking access to nearly everything he needs – there’s a Lawtons Drug Store and Sobeys across the street, the post office and banks are around the corner, and there are doctors and optometrist offices down the block.

The home also offers exercise classes every morning, a van that takes people for social outings to the Neptune Theatre, local restaurants, and the casino, to name a few. Plus, entertainers frequently come into the building to put on shows.

“I never get the idea that I have to drive a car,” he said. “I can get along without it.”

But his experience isn’t like many others who live in rural areas, where making the transition to more urban, retirement-based communities, isn’t necessarily welcome.

And it’s been a long winter. All the snow and ice on the streets made it hard to get around. Anytime there was entertainment in the home, he was there. If the van had an empty seat, he’d take it. Or he’d hobble, permanently hunched over, through the halls talking to anyone he could.

Even with all that going on, he still finds the days can be long when he’s stuck in one place.

“After dinner is usually the longest,” he said. “Especially since Mary died, and the TV is terrible.”

MacNeil, however, is fortunate that he doesn’t depend on his car. With a veteran’s pension and some foresight, he can afford to live at The Berkeley and was still healthy when a spot opened up.

Despite all that, he still has a car– a 2008 Chevy Malibu that will “last him for life.”

He doesn’t drive often, he said, but it’s there when he needs it.

He usually only uses it to get to church on the weekend and sometimes to visit the group of retirees at the local Tim Horton’s in the morning, he said.

For many people in rural areas, like Bill Hunter, who lives in a part of the province where there is no taxi service, the car is their lifeline.

“The worst thing you can do is sit in your room and look at two walls,” said MacNeil. “The doctor will tell you you’re not going to last long.”

For Bill, nearly everything he needed – groceries, doctor appointments, social get togethers – it all required driving.

But, driving wasn’t just a lifeline; it was also a form of entertainment.

“He loved driving,” said Stephanie. “Everyday the man was on the road just driving everywhere.”

Cars represented something different to MacNeil and Hunter’s generation. Manufacturing them saved the economy, owning one was a source of pride and you could fix it with your own hands.

The decision to stop driving is often so intricately tied to social worth, that giving it up voluntarily is difficult.

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