Robert Rodgers worked for eight years driving passengers with dementia at Alzheimer’s Services of the East Bay

Popular bus driver retires, and passengers feel the loss

on September 30, 2014

“Could you stay until my birthday?” the passenger kept asking her driver.

The rider, an elderly woman with short gray hair and faint voice, did not want Robert Rodgers to leave the driver’s seat of her daily van. But Rodgers had his future planned: he would retire from the van service when he turned 62.

“Born and raised in Oakland,” as he likes to say, Rodgers had been in the driver’s seat for a long time. Even when he enlisted in the army for six years, and went to Germany in 1978, he drove. His father had given him the advice to be a driver. After all, there would always be someone who needed to go somewhere, he used to say to his son. Rodgers also had the opportunity to drive for AC Transit but he declined it; he preferred driving for elderly passengers, he said.

He was working as a machine operator in a company in San Leandro when it moved to Southern California. Relocating was not in his plans, so he quit. It was then that he started driving physically disabled people for East Bay Paratransit. One of his passengers’ destinations was the Alzheimer’s Services of the East Bay (ASEB), where a woman in the front desk kept asking him to work for them.

After two years, he accepted. “I must be doing something right,” he says he thought back then. He stayed there for eight years, until he felt tired.

His duties included driving passengers with dementia to and from cities like Oakland, Richmond, San Leandro, Berkeley, Pinole, Albany and El Cerrito. “I enjoy dealing with the elderly,” said the former driver, who took care of his own sick mother for 17 years. She had had a heart attack, and a triple bypass.

The birthday lady, Rodgers’ devoted rider, called him “Shaq,” (after the nickname for Shaquille O’Neal), because she’s petite and to her Rodgers seemed as tall as the 7-foot 1-inch former NBA basketball star. He, in turn, found nicknames for many of the regular riders on his route. One became “Ms. B,” another “Queen Elizabeth,” he said, recalling passengers he’d driven over the years. Still another, he called “Cowgirl,” because “she likes horses,” he said. He knew who liked dancing and who enjoyed bingo.

Rodgers had a hunch that a certain gentleman on the bus was in love with Ms. B, so the driver let him get off the van and grab roses for her. “If I can get to 99 and still flirt, I want to be like you,” Rodgers told them.

For eight years, he drove from Oakland to Berkeley, opened the door for the other drivers and made sure the vans were ready. The trips started at 7:30 am, when he picked up the first passenger bound for Alzheimer’s Services, a 25-year-old not-for-profit organization that cares for people experiencing early-stage memory loss to full-blown dementia.

ASEB’s center at Berkeley receives up to 60 persons on a regular basis. It has three drivers in Berkeley and another three in Hayward. In late September, ASEB opened a new center in Fremont.

Rodgers’ duties also included taking members home after four hours at the center, which has both health and social programs. While adult day care is the society’s primary program, it also offers one for people with early-stage dementia and support groups for caregivers.

Rodgers didn’t want to be just a driver. “I tried to make them laugh,” Rodgers said. “As long as I see them smile, I know they are OK.”

While driving, he also served as the van’s DJ. Although he personally prefers gospel music, he said he knew who preferred jazz or classical music, and he played it for them. He told jokes to keep them smiling.

“Where do you wanna go today? I’m not going to ASEB. I’m going to Vegas and go gambling for a couple of hours,” was one of his favorite lines and also a very effective one, as they laughed from their seats. “When I see them, I just light up, like a Christmas tree,” Rodgers said.

Rodgers knows laughter isn’t a cure-all. On a bad day, clients could occasionally become violent or aggressive on the van. When that happened, the driver said he tried to get them home first so they did not “kill the spirit.”

Even worse things can happen with very elderly clients. Last year, for example, a woman died aboard the van. Rodgers was helping another passenger with his wheelchair when he noticed something was wrong. An old woman was breathing “really hard.” He stayed with her and kept talking to her until the paramedics came, he recalled. CPR did not work.

“I just wanted to walk away,” he said. Although it took him about three months to recover from that episode, he didn’t quit.

In serving a clientele with memory loss, “we found that the routine was very good” for the passengers, said Andrew Balmat, the agency’s director of development and social media. Having the same driver, who understands each individual, is a benefit. Drivers know the participants’ families, which helps them develop “a sense of trust,” said Balmat.

Dementia involves a wide range of symptoms associated not only with memory loss but also with other thinking skills, according to the Alzheimer’s Association website. Alzheimer’s accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases. More than 5 million Americans suffer from this disease, the sixth leading cause of death in the country, the association says.

“There seems to be trust that grows with the repeated contact” between the drivers and the participants who suffers from Alzheimer’s, Balmat said.

Rodgers is aware of that. “They feel secure around me,” he said simply.

“He’s a really sweet guy,” said Balmat, who has worked at ASEB for 12 years. He said that Rodgers has “this incredible caring attitude towards the clients and he really genuinely cares about them all.”

“Some people feel a lot of emotions, and they don’t want to show it,” Balmat said. “I think he was one of those people.”

Rodgers gave in to the birthday lady’s requests that he drive her until she could celebrate with him. He postponed his own retirement for four months to be there for her birthday, in late August.

Still, the transition to retirement was difficult for the driver, the agency and passengers. “He was definitely moved in the last few days,” Balmat said. “But I think he was ready to do more bowling,” he added, referring to Rodgers’ favorite sport.

ASEB posted the news on its Facebook page when Rodgers officially retired. Some of the older patients refused to go to the Alzheimer’s society without him. The first week after retirement, Rodgers said, his mind drifted back to old routines. “I’m looking at the time and I think: I’d be picking up [the birthday girl] right now… That’s going to stick to me for awhile.”

Then, one week after retiring, the society asked him to work another week, as his replacement had changed his mind. So even though Rodgers is technically retired, he is still working, until further notice.

“I picked them all up,” he said of the day he returned to the job. “They were surprised. They got on the bus—they were all happy and crying.”

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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