My father, Jack, moved in with me and my husband when my mom’s dementia became too much for him to handle. We placed Mom in an assisted living facility close by. Dad drove over to our home and stood crying at the door. I told him, “You are moving in with us today.” That was the beginning of two years of bliss of having Dad live with us.
Dad found a new pleasure when he moved in with us: driving. He drove everywhere and loved it. Mom didn’t like him driving so this newfound freedom was a joy for him. He didn’t know anyone where we lived, and all his friends had died. Dad outlived all his World War II comrades and all his close friends. The few living were too far away to visit. So he occupied himself with various activities, most of which required he drive the car.
While my husband and I were at work, Dad walked our dog Hank and his dog Sally. They were his pals. He often snuck off to get a milkshake at the local burger place, or “city dogs” at another place he’d found. Of course, these were off limits to his diet. He had heart disease that resulted in congestive heart failure. He watched cooking shows and then began driving for groceries and cooking dinner for us. He had never cooked before living with us. He was so excited to have the freedom to come and go. But as the years progressed, Dad had increasing difficulty managing the effects of his heart medications while driving.
I knew I had to talk to Dad about his driving. I had noticed scrapes on the side of the car and that Dad was falling asleep all the time wherever he was. My sister and I followed him in the car one day and saw him cross the centerline. It was time to talk about WHEN he would need to quit driving. I had read Crucial Conversations for work and could see how the information applied to all facets of my life. I planned to use the skills.
Dad and I sat down one evening. I started by mentioning I had to have a serious conversation with him about his driving. He immediately said, “I knew this day would come.” He explained how much he wanted to drive. I told him I understood, yet the time was coming when he would have to stop, and when that day arrived I didn’t want to “take the car keys away from him.” I wanted him to be part of the decision. I told him I wanted him to hand the keys over, knowing it was time, making the decision for himself.
He quietly said ok.
“So,” I said, “we need to make an agreement about how the future conversation will go so we don’t end up fighting.”
We determined we would both agree when it was the right time, no matter how difficult. I asked that he trust me, and he said he did. I explained that I had seen him cross the centerline and had found scratches on the car. He looked down and admitted he had fallen asleep at the wheel a couple times.
At that point, I told him I wasn’t taking the keys away that night. But I also shared I didn’t want to lose him to a car accident, and I told him I knew he would never forgive himself if he had an accident and others were killed or injured. I asked him to trust me to know when it was time to give up the keys; and I asked him be prepared for it.
We agreed upon a phrase that would let him know it was time to give me the keys willingly. The day would come when I would say, “Dad, it’s time to talk about your driving.” When I did, I wanted him to say, “Okay, here are my keys.” This was not easy, but he agreed. I then explained that I’d follow him to check on his driving, as would my sister. He consented.
My sister and I took turns following Dad. One day Dad was at a red light and he fell asleep. My sister was behind him. She had to honk to wake him up.
We also noticed there was a big dent in the side of the car. He said he had fallen asleep driving down the hill from Mom’s and hit a guardrail and woke up. His health had declined. He had fallen a couple times and accidentally overdosed on his medications. The day had arrived.
I asked Dad to sit down. He knew. He had the sweetest and saddest look on his face. I said something close to this: “As we agreed months ago, I would be honest with you about your driving and tonight we need to talk about it.” He looked at me, with tears streaming down his cheeks, and said, “I know it’s time. Take my keys.”
I too was crying! We hugged. No fight. I thanked him and told him I understood how hard it was going to be. I asked what he wanted me to do with his car. He told me to sell it. So that’s what we did. We sold the car and gave the money to Dad.
After that my husband or I drove him to see Mom. He no longer could shop or go get milkshakes and city dogs. His dog Sally died and that was a tough. We had to move him to the same assisted living place as Mom. He got to see her daily. He fixed her breakfast daily and read the papers to her. He later told me that the time he spent living with me and my husband were two of his happiest years, that he missed being there, and missed driving.
Dad lived five more years. He was lucid till four days before he died, at 90 years of age. Mom passed away nine months after Dad.
Dad and I talked often about his love for driving and independence, and he never held resentment. He thanked me, my husband, and my sister and her husband for helping him and Mom. He knew it was the right decision to stop driving. He told me how much he appreciated how we handled it. He loved being independent, and when he handed over his keys it was his decision. You see, my dad was one of great integrity, and if he gave his word he honored his word. He agreed to our arrangement, and understood its importance. It was a sad but beautiful conversation. I will never regret having that difficult conversation ahead of time, to prepare for our very difficult conversation. ◼
The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the storyteller and do not reflect the view of VitalSmarts.
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