Have you heard of Norma Jean Bauerschmidt? Norma became an internet sensation last year when she and her family made an unconventional decision about how to face the end of her life. In this column we share information and suggestions about managing life as an older adult based on our training and our experiences with our own families and the clients whom we serve. Personal examples can serve as the most influential foundation for concepts about aging, so instead of analyzing Norma’s story from a professional point of view, I’d like to present an overview of it and allow you to develop your own perspectives about Norma’s life experiences and their potential impacts on your personal as well as our society’s attitudes toward aging and end-of-life.
Norma and her husband, Leo, were elderly retirees living in their own home in northern Michigan. They had been married in 1948, and were described by their family as a “well-oiled team.” Leo’s health had declined, and while he was dying, Norma had been undergoing testing after a routine check-up revealed blood in her urine. In July, 2015, Leo died, and two days later, 90 year-old Norma was given a diagnosis of stage 4 uterine cancer.
Norma and Leo’s daughter had died in 2008, and their retired son and daughter-in-law, suspecting that Norma’s prognosis wouldn’t be good, had sat down with her prior to that fateful doctor appointment to figure out their options. Living alone wasn’t going to work, and like many families, a nursing home wasn’t exactly at the top of their list. Little did they know that the solution that they came up with would within several months develop a following of thousands of people.
Norma and her family decided that she would forego any treatment and live with her son, daughter-in-law, and their poodle. The twist is that her son and daughter-in-law live in an RV and travel widely. Although they were not accustomed to seeing Norma routinely because of their lifestyle, the knowledge that her mind was clear, she was not in any pain, and she enjoyed traveling played a role in their decision. With the support of Norma’s physician, they took her on the road in August of 2015.
Norma’s daughter-in-law, an experienced blogger, started a page on Facebook so that a few family members and friends could track their progress and provide some emotional support for this endeavor. Leaving from Michigan they headed west across the northern section of the country. Her son didn’t think they would make it to Mt. Rushmore. Instead, they wound up reaching that destination, heading south along the Rockies to Arizona, then east across the southern section of the country to New Orleans, around Florida, and up the east coast to Maine, before heading back west.
Their Facebook page, titled Driving Miss Norma, chronicled all of their adventures along the way. Norma was able to visit state and national parks, pose for photos at quirky roadside attractions, sample regional beer and food in a multitude of eateries, go zip-lining, ride in a St. Patrick’s Day parade, visit Disney World, and go up in a hot air balloon (one of her favorite activities). Her expressions in the photos taken of the many experiences along the way, and the insightful posts by her daughter-in-law which accompany the photos, reveal the meaning of this undertaking for all of them.
This family trip around the country and through Norma’s last stage of life was introduced to the public by the Good News Network, a website designed to share positive stories from around the world. What started as a personal journey unintentionally but quickly became very public; at last check Driving Miss Norma had 485,063 likes. Her story has been featured on national news outlets, and in local newspapers. Norma’s son, Tim, stated, “One thing I’ve learned from my mom is you’re never too old to grow.” Her daughter-in-law, Ramie, a former school counselor, believes, “It [Driving Miss Norma] has become a really safe way for people to talk about end-of-life issues with their families.”
Norma Jean Bauerschmidt spent the final weeks of her journey on San Juan Island in Washington, where the family parked the RV when Norma’s health became too fragile for further travel. Hospice services were engaged, and Norma died on September 30, 2016. I doubt that if Norma had at any time wondered what the last year of her life would be like, that she would have come up with a story like this. While some circumstances may be out of our control, the decisions which we are able to make about our lives can have surprising results for ourselves and others. Thank you, Miss Norma and family, for sharing the results of your “outside-of-the-box” end-of-life decision.
Karen Kaslow, RN