A few months ago, Karen Delgado walked in with a shocking announcement for her husband: She was heading out to the drugstore - on her own.

Delgado, of Mays Landing, got in her car, drove to the local CVS and picked up what she needed. While she was out, she noticed she was low on gas, so she turned onto the Black Horse Pike and went to fill up the car before she headed home.

"I got my scrip filled and I got gas," she said. "Then I drove home, walked in the living room and said, 'I am victorious!'"

That quick, two-stop trip might seem pretty unremarkable to most of us, but it sounded just about impossible to Delgado, now 78, and her husband, Al, for almost four years after a major stroke paralyzed Karen's left arm. But that was before she went to the driver re-education program at Bacharach Institute for Rehabilitation in Galloway Township, and met Clare McLaughlin, a certified driver-rehabilitation specialist.

Now McLaughlin "truly is my hero," as Karen put it, sitting behind the specially adapted steering wheel of her car one morning last week. "Because she got me my freedom back."

McLaughlin has been at Bacharach for 21 years, and teaching drivers to get back on the road - or to drive for the first time - for 20 years. But she definitely doesn't win that hero title from everyone who she deals with, most of them referred to her department by their doctors. Because McLaughlin also has to deliver the news that some of the patients really shouldn't be driving anymore.

"It's always the hard part to tell them ... they have to retire from driving. It's a very emotional thing," she says. "You put yourself in that person's shoes - that's a huge part of their independence lost."

But drivers who fail Bacharach's tests are allowed to try again six months later, so McLaughlin can suggest they work on their problems and come back then. And the hospital also can offer suggestions on transportation and other services in their home areas.

By the Federal Highway Administration's 2012 statistics, there were more than 30 million licensed drivers in the country ages 65 or older. More than 1 million of those drivers lived in New Jersey -and about 111,000 people driving on this state's roads were 85 or older, by the highway agency's latest count.

Most of the patients sent to Bacharach's driving program would show up in those 65-plus age groups, and they're looking to get back on the road after illnesses or injuries - or to see if they can keep driving. But McLaughlin adds that some of her clients are younger people who have disabilities, and they're learning to drive for the first time.

"We have (teenagers) or college students ... and we start them from the beginning of the process, all the controls of the car - gas, brakes" and all the rest, McLaughlin said.

She knows most teenagers without medical problems can learn to drive with their own parents. But in her experience, the ones who need Bacharach's driver-education car - with its spinner knob on the steering wheel and turn-signal extensions and backup gas and brake pedals for the teacher - seem to be more motivated than many other young drivers.

And occasionally, McLaughlin gets older people learning to drive for the first time, including a woman in her 60s who came to her a few years ago after the death of her husband - who used to do all the driving.

"It's a big achievement for them," she says, "because it's something they may have thought they could never do."

Doortje Fenwick, of Linwood, is 63, but she wasn't sure she'd be able to drive on her own again after a stroke almost five years ago.

Last week, though, she drove herself up the Garden State Parkway back to Bacharach, where she went through the driving program. And her next goal is to drive her mini-van - which has a spinner knob added to the steering wheel and its gas pedal on the left side, because her stroke affected her right leg - farther still, to a family vacation house in Barnegat Light.

"Then I want to go to New York, then Connecticut and then onward," said Fenwick, an architect who estimates that the adaptations for her van added up to about $700. They've been letting her drive since September, and those longer-distance highway trips would let her visit her grown daughters again.

"It took me forever," she says, to get back behind the wheel. "But Clare fixed me up so I can drive again."

McLaughlin starts her lessons on low-speed roads, and even empty parking lots. Then she moves up to local roads with two lanes and four lanes before the drivers graduate to the 65 mph parkway or Atlantic City Expressway.

And before they ever get behind the wheel, the new clients have to pass a "pre-driver evaluation" in an office. That test measures their "physical and perceptual abilities, language skills, general attitude, behavior, vision, reaction time and cognitive skills," as Bacharach's program overview explains it.

But would-be drivers also need a ride to get to all their driving tests and lessons, which is why Karen Delgado is so grateful to her friend, Florence Warner, from their 55-and-older development in Mays Landing - because Warner drove Delgado to 10 sessions with McLaughlin. The neighbors also go to the Christian Church of Egg Harbor Township together, and another church member was giving Delgado a ride to services there for the past few years.

Now she's thrilled to be able to offer Warner a ride if they're going somewhere together.

"And the guy who used to pick me up for church," Delgado adds, "now I drive him, just for sport."

Contact Martin DeAngelis:

609-272-7237