Taking the Keys
I just saw a memory show up on my Facebook page from two years ago.
Jim and Brad are smiling on our front porch. Brad and I were heading to the airport so we could fly to Iowa with his Odyssey of the Mind team for the World competition. Jim was staying home with Frances and then our nephew was coming to help out by taking her to a softball tournament out of town. Jim was going to stay home by himself. Wow. It seems like five years ago.
The only hiccup was he couldn’t drive.
By this time I had taken Jim’s keys and he was stuck at home unless someone could give him a ride. That had been a hard decision. But as my father recently pointed out, I made tough decisions and made them at just the right time over and over throughout the whole process of losing Jim to Younger Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Those words have meant so much to me as I continue to grieve the loss of my husband and the father of our children and my best friend.
Driving. It is so common for so many that we forget the responsibility that goes along with getting behind the wheel. The decisions that must be made instantaneously. The multi-tasking. The consequences that take place when something, even something minor goes wrong. In an instant, lives can be changed, taken, scarred and damaged beyond repair.
When Jim first got diagnosed, we had a lot of conversations. Thankfully. We talked about a lot of hypotheticals and what we thought was going to happen. Of course, now I know that until you live with dementia, you never really understand what is coming your way. One of the many topics of those chats was driving. I think I had been reading an article or a story or something that dealt with a person not being able to drive anymore and they were having a difficult time. So, like I have done so many times, I tackled the subject head first.
Jim understood that some day he would not be able to drive anymore. When his Mom was suffering from the same disease, she got lost, went the wrong way on a highway and was found many miles from home. Jim remembered the panic their family went through and recognized the gravity of what could have happened and wanted to learn from what had happened all those years ago. But as he became more and more unaware of the abilities he was losing, he also was becoming less and less able to make his own decisions.
I am beyond grateful Jim trusted me the amount and the way he did. He trusted me to make decisions for him at times that were difficult but necessary. Of course, this also put even more responsibility on my shoulders and sometimes it seemed more than I could handle.
About six months before he actually stopped driving, I took him for a test specifically designed for people with neurological disorders. The Center for Excellence in Aging took hours with Jim and determined he was still fit for the task.
Several months went by and I noticed Jim was no longer able to do a variety of tasks around the house. Even simple things like emptying the dishwasher were needing tweaks and if I talked to him while he was doing something, forget about it. Or if I actually tried to give him more than one thing to do at a time (while he was folding laundry asking him to also replace the hand towel in the bathroom).
Then Jim got a ticket for running a red light. It came in the mail. Jim had never gotten a ticket before, ever. Then he hit a garbage can driving through the neighborhood which damaged the side mirror on the passenger side. The final straw was when he was sure he had thrown the keys in the trashcan and then stood by as the trash truck came and emptied the large green container. I was beside myself. I was over it.
But taking his driving rights away would be more than taking away his independence. It would be even more on me. No help from him running the kids to all of their activities. No more quick runs to the store when I don’t have an ingredient. No more designated driver. I would be responsible for making sure he got up and out of the house too. No more sitting in the passenger seat for me.
I sometimes picture him standing at our front door, watching me drive away and I feel an emptiness and regret inside. Maybe I should have taken him with me on my errands instead of leaving him many times behind. Maybe he could have kept driving a little longer. Maybe….
It is a difficult thing, snatching away the right to take yourself wherever you want to go. It is a responsibility to our society to pay attention and know it is a difficult task, but it must be done. Eventually it will happen, it is just a matter of when. Putting it off might work out just fine, but it could also end in tragedy. One you can’t forgive yourself for. Our neighborhood has narrow streets, children everywhere and lots of activity. I knew the guilt and burden I would live with far outweighed any inconvenience I had becoming the lone driver in our household. I knew if something did happen, Jim would have a huge decline as well because he was still aware enough to know if he did something to harm someone else. And ultimately, my task as his caregiver was to keep him safe. And that is what I did.