Part II: When Is It Time To Take The Keys Away?

Part II: When Is It Time To Take The Keys Away?

After Dad passed the state-required competency test, he continued to drive. That was in March of 2002. Mother passed away in April, 2002. The live-in, Josephine, continued to stay in their home, looking after my bereaved Dad. Whether it was the stroke, aging, grief, depression or the beginning of Alzheimer's, Dad could not remember to take his medicine. The live-in remained until July, 2002, when Dad moved into a lovely assisted-living facility. Okay, let's be honest, I moved him into the facility. 

My husband and I were getting ready to go to our summer home in North Carolina for four months. After nine intense months of caregiving for my mother, I was looking forward to the beauty and peace of the mountains. The situation with the live-in had run its course, and it was time to get Dad into a facility that could not only look after his physical needs, but become a place to make new friends and hopefully begin to recover from his deep mourning of his departed wife. 

Dad became "Mr. Popular" very quickly because he was handsome and kind and funny and affable and, oh yes, he had a car! I was alarmed when one of the staff told me he and two other male residents had "gone to a bar on the beach and didn't get back until midnight." On the one hand, I was glad Dad was enjoying time out with friends. On the other, I had bleak visions of his driving back across the bridge from Jensen Beach to the mainland at midnight after having a couple of drinks.


The Jensen Beach Bridge!


Still, despite his dementia, Dad was functioning well and I didn't want to restrict his fun by taking away his keys. It's difficult being a Health Care Surrogate because you're responsible for making decisions that ensure safety and quality of life. It's even more difficult, however, to be a child trying to control her dad's life, even if it's for his own good. He continued to drive for the first two years he lived in the assisted living facility with no problem.  

Before Mother passed, she and Dad would drive up from Florida to visit us every summer in North Carolina. After Mother passed, it made more sense for Dad to fly. Though Dad was still driving, I couldn't fathom his driving to the airport and finding his way to the right gate. So I found a wonderful man in Florida who, on behalf of distant families, took care of elderly patients' needs in many areas. He would drive Dad to the Palm Beach airport, and with a special pass, get him all the way to the boarding area and on the plane. I met Dad on the other end, and when he was ready to fly back to Florida, I used a special pass to make sure Dad boarded safely. Then the driver met him as he deplaned in Palm Beach. He would drive dad to the assisted living facility, even carrying his luggage up to his apartment. It was in 2004, the third year of doing this, and after speaking with the driver, I followed my routine of calling the assisted living facility to confirm Dad was safe and happily ensconced in his lovely apartment.

So imagine my shock when I received a call less than an hour later from a state trooper telling me that my dad had been in an accident. He wasn't hurt, the trooper said, but he had jumped a median and wiped out four cars. WHAT?! I had gone to the trouble and expense to make sure Dad was driven door to door, and yet he had grabbed his keys and headed out as soon as he got back. 

Fortunately, only one person was slightly injured and taken to the hospital by ambulance. But Dad's sturdy Ford Crown Victoria--the very same kind that was the vehicle of choice of police departments--had protected him from injury.  

What can you do? I thought to tell Dad that the insurance company would no longer insure him after such a costly accident, but that would have been a lie. He had a guaranteed renewable policy. So his car was repaired and he still had the keys. He was a danger to himself and others, however, so I had to make the very hard decision to take him to his neurologist, then afterward, get the doctor sign a form saying Dad was no longer able to drive.

I was the bearer of that bad news. I didn't mention the accident in the telling; I simply told him the doctor diagnosed that his Parkinson's was advancing, and it was beginning to affect his motor control skills, which could prove dangerous in driving a car. 

It was obvious Dad was shattered, but he was stoic. He said he wouldn't want to be responsible for hurting anyone. But here's the thing: Growing older and having afflictions means your independence and dignity are taken away one bite at a time. This was a tremendous blow to Dad's sense of capability, independence, and self-esteem. I took Dad's set of keys but didn't sell his car right away. I realized later this was probably a bad move. He could see it sitting in a parking spot, but he didn't have the keys to get it going. He would call me and tell me he lost his keys, forgetting or pretending to forget he couldn't drive. That just extended his mourning period for his loss of freedom. 

The assisted living facility had a bus for transporting residents to doctor's appointments and taking them on outings. But to Dad, riding that bus had the same impact as getting hit by a bus.

Back in Florida for the winter, I was able to drive the hundred miles from Miami to Port St. Lucie to take Dad to his appointments. And what luck that I found another Helper named Patty, who looked an awful lot like me, and who became Dad's driver for wherever he wanted to go.

I realized that taking his license away and selling his car didn't have to mean the end of outings. It just meant he had to get where he was while riding in the passenger seat, rather than being in the driver's seat. And in a short amount of time, he came to like being driven.

Every such incident of taking away the keys will be different, but it will always be stressful. We make many hard decisions when we are looking out for our health-compromised parents, and this is just one more. I found that using a doctor's diagnosis to explain the reasoning for difficult actions is the best choice, and it lets us off the hook in terms of being blamed. In that way, we're still able to take care of our loved ones without hard feelings hanging over us. It's just another part of doing one of the hardest jobs we'll ever have to do, where some of the best tools we can use are compassion and the maintaining of dignity. That, and unfailing love, are what caregiving is all about.     

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