For the past year, 91-year-old Norma Bauerschmidt has made her home the open road. “Miss Norma,” as she’s known, is traveling across the country with her son, Tim Bauerschmidt and his wife, Ramie Liddle. The trio said that so far the trip has taught them about the importance of having end-of-life conversations with loved ones.
“What struck us is how difficult it is to have that conversation with people that you love about how they want the last months of their life to be,” Liddle told FoxNews.com. “Our greatest hope with our story... is that it can maybe help families start that conversation.”
Miss Norma and her family started their travels on August 24, 2015, almost five weeks after she had been diagnosed with uterine cancer. Her diagnosis came just two weeks after her husband of 67 years, Leo, passed away. A month earlier, on June 7, her only remaining sibling, Ralph, had died. Miss Norma had another child, Stacy, who passed away eight years ago from cancer.
“She lost the two [remaining] people most important to her life within a month of each other,” Liddle said..
Rather than spend whatever time she had left undergoing treatment, Miss Norma informed doctors that she had decided to hit the road instead. Health-wise, Miss Norma is doing OK now, Liddle said, though she hasn’t seen a doctor since the initial diagnosis.
“I think she’s probably very normal for her age,” she said. “Sometimes she’s tired, sometimes not. She’s been chugging along and there’ve been times when we’ve asked if she wants to see the doctor for one thing or another and she’s said no.”
Before her diagnosis, Miss Norma’s osteoarthritis was slowing her down, but she and Leo were a team, able to compensate for each other’s weaknesses. When she was no longer able to go down to the basement of their Presque Isle, Michigan, home to do laundry, Leo would.
“She knew something had to change when Leo died,” Liddle said.
Miss Norma considered assisted living or a nursing care facility, but ultimately decided to take her daughter-in-law and son up on their offer to move in and share their motor home.
Bauerschmidt and Liddle are self-proclaimed “nomads” who had already been traveling for two years before adding Miss Norma to their group. They bought a new RV, specially chosen because its open living area has enough room to navigate with her cane and to give Miss Norma her own room. As Miss Norma’s needs have changed, they’ve adapted, adding a shower seat and a suction cup hand rail to the bathroom vanity so she can use the toilet independently.
Miss Norma’s mind is sharp, Liddle said.
“It was a lot of life-changing things in a very short period of time,” Liddle said. “We’ve had her mind stimulated for the entire year, so I think the grieving certainly happens, but she hasn’t ever fallen into a deep depression.”
Prior to visiting over 75 different cities, Miss Norma had traveled in Europe with Stacy, but exploring her home country was a new thing for her, having only lived in Ohio, where she was born, and Michigan.
“Within the first two months of our trip, we were in Colorado, she thought she’d met more people than she had in her whole life collectively,” Liddle said.
Bauerschmidt and Liddle’s 9-year-old dog, Ringo has become an indispensable partner to Miss Norma, sitting with her when she’s outside reading or playing games on her iPad.
“It gives her a lot of peace of mind that he’s with us,” Liddle said. “He’s a very, very important part of this journey.”
Though Miss Norma is very shy, she’s become a celebrity, with over 420,000 Facebook followers on the Driving Miss Norma page and fans greeting her on the street.
“She really loves it and lights up, to meet ‘her’ people,” Liddle said. “It’s always a surprise and joy when someone says ‘hello’ to her.”
The only agenda the family has set for their road trip is to avoid extreme temperature, otherwise they drive where they want, when they want. They plan to continue for the rest of Miss Norma’s life.
“It’s really inspiring for us that even though she does have rotten days when she feels lousy, this is a much better situation than anything else she could imagine,” Liddle said.
Bauerschmidt and Liddle have Miss Norma’s comfort as their priority and are considering adding hospice care to their team if she needs, but said that Miss Norma isn’t interested in life-saving measures.
“She’s at peace with the idea of passing; that whatever happens, happens,” Liddle said. “She’s going to continue living until she’s not living anymore.”