This is my forth post describing the journey with my wife Cheryl. In a period of 42 months, this insidious disease progressed from mild stage early onset Alzheimer’s to the severe profound stage she is experiencing today. Cheryl, at the age of 61, now lives in a memory care unit, unable to verbally communicate.
The first time I ever really saw Cheryl cry regarding her condition was when the doctor from the Baylor School of Medicine stated it would be best if she quit driving. You see, Cheryl absolutely loved to drive! In fact, for her fortieth birthday, Cheryl spent a week at Bob Bondurant’s School of Race Driving – a well-known high speed driving school. While taking the class, she became so proficient in driving an open wheel race car that she beat the men in her class. Later, when we lived in Germany, Cheryl was able to use those skills driving on the Autobahn – topping 200 kilometers per hour (124 mph).
As a result, she was always the designated driver by the other expat wives as they took extended shopping trips throughout Europe. As a matter of fact, I often let her drive when we were out together. The fact that we discovered that she was directionally challenged (Cheryl couldn’t read a map or know which direction she was traveling) added to the necessity for her to drive and me to navigate.
Most people think that the problem with allowing someone with Alzheimer’s disease to drive is they will get lost and not be able to find their way home. While this is certainly a good possibility, the real danger of letting them drive is the disease hampers their ability to multitask Since this also affects their reaction time, the probability of an accident is greatly increased.
I learned that there were companies who specialize in assessing the driving abilities of someone who has Alzheimer’s; however, I chose not to have this done. Why – because I don’t think I really wanted to know and I didn’t want to face taking away Cheryl’s driving privileges. I believe if she had been assessed and deemed unfit to drive there surley would have been insurance consequences had she had an accident. (The problem with my way of thinking is the consequences would probably be the same even if she had not had an assessment!) I continued to let her drive for as long as I felt it was safe. When she took her month long trips to visit her mother, I even asked her mom to let her drive occasionally so we wouldn’t have to “relearn” anything upon her return.
Over time, I did notice her driving becoming more erratic. For example, on one occasion while we were driving to Dallas, I noted she was having difficulty staying in her lane. Another time, she almost pulled out into oncoming traffic. This is when I decided I would only let her drive short distances, and not use the freeways anymore. (As if an accident couldn’t occur close to home.)
Cheryl was becoming aware that she was having difficulty finding her way around and became afraid of getting lost. Every Tuesday Cheryl would drive to get her hair done. When her hairdresser changed locations, it became obvious she was getting more and more confused with directions. Later I was told by her hairdresser that Cheryl would verify what street on which to turn on to go home every time she left.
Not surprisingly, Cheryl called me a few weeks later on her cell phone quite upset, telling me she was in the car but didn’t know where she was. I asked her what she saw through the windshield, and if she saw any street signs. After describing what she saw, I was able to determine her location. It was clear when I arrived, Cheryl had been frightened by the experience. She had missed the turn to go to our home and had driven two miles further before realizing she was completely lost.
It was evident I needed to do something to protect her. So, the following Tuesday I suggested I drive her to her hair appointment and afterwards have a lunch date together. The plan worked to perfection! Cheryl looked forward to her hair appointment and lunch every week. She never asked to drive again.
For the next six months, I proceeded to drive us in either my car or her car. I sold her car to a family friend the next time she went to visit her mother in Arizona. When she returned, she never noticed the void in the garage.
There were numerous lessons I learned in taking away Cheryl’s car keys. First, it is important to address and assess honestly the driving abilities of your loved one. Secondly, one needs to realize the problem with driving with Alzheimer’s is much more than just getting lost - it not only involves the safety of your loved one but others as well Thirdly, if there is an accident involving your loved one, insurance may not cover it and there could also be other legal ramifications. Most importantly, it is the caregiver’s responsibility to take the car keys away for the safety of all concerned. Even though there may be some anger over the actions to eliminate driving privileges, it is something that needs to be done. The anger will pass in time.
Click the link for more information on dementia and driving: http://www.alz.org/care/alzheimers-dementia-and-driving.asp
-Written by Don Baird as part of our “Lessons Learned” blog series. Be on the lookout for more wisdom and lessons learned from Don in the coming weeks and months.