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A Heartbreaking Decision
Getting Dad to stop driving
By Kevin Ferguson (Guest Post)
I started doing my Dad's grocery shopping on the brink of the pandemic shutdown. He lived alone, five minutes away and was in declining health.
At eighty-four, he suffered from lung disease and used an oxygen tank multiple times daily.
I'd check in on him almost daily. My trips to the grocery store were not only to shrink his bubble during the pandemic but also to minimize his need to drive. Before the lockdown, I got a glimpse of how much his driving skills had declined when I attended one of his doctor's visits and let him drive. A lot of jerky movements and close calls. It was scary.
He agreed to let me shop for him. But over time, I started to spot hints that he was taking the car out on occasion. He often denied it, but his lies were glaring.
"Where did this potato salad come from?"
"I don't know," he'd say.
He had a hard time with COVID safety practices. His stability wasn't great, so he often slid a hand along counters to aid his balance. It worried me when I'd see him do it in a doctor's waiting room because I was also caregiving for my 99-year-old maternal grandmother. The last thing I wanted to do was bring COVID home to her.
I lectured my Dad about the safety concerns of him driving to the store. The following day, he sat me down and said, "I don't want you to give me a hard time about my driving. I have to make these occasional runs to the store."
"Why?" I asked. "I’ve been doing your shopping.”
“Just to see if I can still do it,” he replied.
A few weeks later, his dermatologist noticed a concerning spot on his outer ear. A biopsy confirmed it was cancerous. Surgery was scheduled to remove it. This set off a chain of notifications, including one from his primary doctor, who ordered him to modify his daily pill routine the week of surgery.
I had a strong suspicion that my Dad was going to mess that up. That’s what prompted me to peek at his Sunday-through-Saturday pillbox. It was Monday, and the pillbox was already a mess. The morning pills were untouched. The Wednesday morning box was empty.
“You didn’t take your pills this morning?” I questioned.
“No, I did,” he said, glancing at the evidence. “I took them out of Wednesday’s box.”
When I asked him why, my questioning only agitated him.
I showed him the instructions I had printed out.
He stared at it with confusion. “Why don’t I have this?”
“You do. I printed it out for you.”
“Let’s make sure the pillbox is set up correctly for the week of your surgery,” I said. He spent 20 minutes prepping his pillbox as I supervised. Anxiety and frustration blanketed his face.
After I left, I called his palliative care nurse. I asked if these cognitive challenges could be a sign that he should stop driving.
“Possibly. But the first step would be to give him a cognitive test,” she said. She offered to come over.
About a week later, she arrived and found my Dad and me watching college basketball on TV.
“How are you doing, Mr. Ferguson?” she asked in her usual cheerful way.
“Oh, I’m doing OK,” he said.
After twenty minutes of chit-chat, she asked if he would be willing to take a short cognitive test.
“Now, what’s that?” he asked.
“It’s called the MoCA test,” she said, referring to the Montreal Cognitive Assessment test. “It’s designed to measure possible signs of dementia, Alzheimer's or Parkinson’s.”
My heart skipped a beat. Signs of dementia? There’s no way he’s going to agree hearing it phrased like that. But to my surprise, he did.
He aced the first two questions.
“Where are you at and what city?”
“My apartment is in Redwood Shore,” he replied.
One question that caught him off guard was to tell her as many words that start with the letter F in sixty seconds.
After two, he was stumped.
“How many letters are in the alphabet?”
“The alphabet? Hmm.” He searched his mind for quite a while.
I’d never been so conflicted in my life. I just wanted him to stop driving and maybe agree to a part-time caregiver. But now, I found myself rooting for him.
Come on, Dad! I said in my head. Twenty-six! You got this!
“I don’t know,” he said.
My heart sank.
He fell just short of a passing score. It wasn’t enough of a red flag to trigger more tests or surrender his car keys.
About two months later, I arrived to take him to another doctor’s appointment. His decline had been even more pronounced. He was more reliant on his oxygen tank. He also needed my assistance in getting down the stairs from his second-story apartment.
We both knew his driving days were over.
Careful what you wish for. It may just break your heart.
Kevin writes a blog called Rain on Monte Bello Ridge about health, aging, and winemaking in the San Francisco Bay area.