MISSOULA -- Dwain Wright fell in love with the '66 Pontiac GTO the moment he set eyes on it.
In 1977, he bought the dusty blue muscle car on the spot for $2,400, and he didn't sell it until last year. Wright replaced the front seat covers, fixed the cracked dash and even let his children take the wheel on occasion.
"One of 'em had a fender bender in it, so that pretty much scotched anybody else driving it unless I was with them," he said.
Now, the cruiser is in the hands of another owner, but the memories it holds are still with Wright, now 77.
"Cars were a big thing for me. ... That was my midlife crisis," he said.
In a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Gerontological Social Work, a University of Montana researcher and his colleague at Ohio State University showed that using automobiles as a focus of reminiscence has emotional and even cognitive benefits for older adults.
"I can't say it's going to be a life changer, but it could be a day changer," said Keith Anderson, a UM associate professor of social work. "And maybe it could count toward improving the days of some of these (senior) folks."
Called "Auto Therapy: Using Automobiles as Vehicles for Reminiscence with Older Adults," the report is one of 600 that UM researchers published in scholarly journals and other media in the 2015 school year, according to UM.
Anderson, who came to UM last year from Ohio State, decided he wanted to work in geriatrics in 2000, when he was a social worker in a nursing home in Washington, D.C.
"I decided that I wanted to go back and do my Ph.D. in gerontology and then focus my work on improving the lives of older adults and their caregivers," he said.
The study came after Anderson had done some work with pets and older adults. Originally, he thought he could use pets as the focus point for a study -- but doing so had a downside.
"It could elicit some very strong emotions, sadness and grief, because all the pets would have died over the course of their lifetimes," he said.
He wanted to create a positive experience, and he looked for a focus point that would parallel an animal in terms of a lifespan.
"So I thought of an automobile," Anderson said.
The car matched his goals perfectly.
"They're able to define each period of your life," he said. "For instance, a young person may have a fixer-upper because that's all they can afford.
"Someone with children may have, back in the day, a station wagon, nowadays a minivan. And then, occasionally, you get these moments in life (where) you get a convertible when you're a bachelor or you have a midlife crisis."
Unlike a failed relationship, though, a clunker can still elicit good memories, and ones that make a person laugh.
"Even if it was a complete piece of junk," Anderson said.
Previous research backed up his idea. Mobility is the primary purpose of a car, but automobiles hold much more meaning to people, according to the study.
"A substantial body of literature has firmly established the importance of automobiles in modern society, especially in the United States," the study said.
"Although mobility may be the core function, automobiles transcend this primary purpose and have become social instruments, symbols of personality and well-being, reflections and engines of cultural change, markers to past places, people and events, and in some cases, treasured members of our families."
At first, Anderson thought he would conduct the initial testing on men, but colleagues encouraged him to include women, and he's glad he did.
He recalls in particular the story he heard from an African-American woman who was pleased to buy a car in the 1950s.
"She told me about the first time she purchased a car and was able to sign her name on the purchasing document. It was a moment of pride for her, and I'm glad we were able to capture that," Anderson said.
He and Katherine Weber, of Ohio State's College of Social Work, performed the study in Ohio on 19 older adults. Anderson said when he looked at the signup sheet asking for participants, more women than men had signed up, and the journal notes 10 women and nine men as subjects.
Reminiscence was the foundation in the research.
"In this pilot study, we introduce a novel approach to reminiscence using automobiles as vehicles to accessing and sharing memories," the study said.
Already, researchers found reminiscing that promotes positive images can contribute to a person's psychological well-being. The qualitative research by Anderson and Weber showed the car was an effective focus point.
Now, Anderson is building on those results. In the current phase of the study, his team is using qualitative and quantitative data to measure the impacts on mood.
Kimberly Mader, a senior student in social work at UM, is working with Anderson on the research, and she has found the simple prompt about a person's car to be a great conversation starter.
The question about a car isn't so personal that it's threatening, she said, and interview subjects can reveal as much or as little as they want about their lives.
"It's a really innocent question," Mader said.
The car was an icon of that generation as well. Decades ago, many seniors didn't fly, she said. They relied on their vehicles and link cars to milestones.
"I had one woman who recently lost her husband. She was talking about how they went on a honeymoon trip together in their first car, and how they traveled through Montana and saw all these beautiful sites," Mader said.
Mader is the site administrator for research at the Missoula Senior Center, and at school she has focused her studies on gerontology. It isn't the most popular field, she said, but it's gaining interest as baby boomers hit retirement.
"More and more people are starting to realize they're the next generation we're going to have to focus on," Mader said.
Integral part of the family
Wright, retired from the military, is one subject of the study, and he agrees that reminiscing about cars can improve a person's outlook.
"I think that's very true. I mean, you still have a lot of car enthusiasts around, and when you start talking to 'em, they just get hyper. They love their cars," Wright said.
Most of the time, his prized GTO stayed in the garage, but Wright remembers taking it to his first big car show, in Sandpoint, Idaho. He and his wife, Judy Wright, remember driving it in a parade in Missoula, too, with five grandchildren in tow.
"It was an integral part of our family," Judy Wright said.
She herself was thrilled to hear her husband had fallen in love with the Pontiac, which had a license plate that read, "GTO4ME." He always put his family first, and she was pleased to see him do something for himself.
Last year, after the car earned a first place award in the Garden City River Rod Run, Dwain Wright opted to sell it. He wasn't doing much with it, and he didn't want to play favorites with his children.
He sold it at an auction for some $22,500.
"I'm still grieving," Wright said, laughing as he made the admission.
The man who bought the classic car lives in the Bitterroot, and Judy Wright suspects it's more of a possession to him than a beloved family member. He didn't want to hear any of the stories that went with the car, and he didn't want the equipment that went with it, either, she said.
"It was like a charm on a charm bracelet for him. That kind of hurt you a little, don't you think?" Judy Wright said.
Replied Wright: "I've never seen the car since he bought it."
Anyone can do it
Anderson's research to help older people continues, and his study on the automobile as a point of reminiscence is ongoing in Missoula. So far, he said, the most surprising finding is the importance of the honeymoon car.
One advantage of the research is that a person doesn't need extensive training or a license to ask a simple question that will take someone down memory lane, he said.
Volunteers at nursing homes and assisted living facilities can do it as easily as staff members, social workers and therapists, Anderson said. Plus, he said, photos of all the cars are online, a phenomenon that has shocked some subjects seeing "their" cars on a computer screen.
"One older gentleman said, 'How did you get my car inside that box?' " Anderson said.
Plus, he said, the person asking the question gains as well.
"It's one of those feel-good research projects. ... I feel like the researchers benefit as much as the folks who are in the intervention," Anderson said.