There have been several anniversaries in my household over the last few weeks. Three weeks ago marked my fifth year here on Cape Cod, and two weeks ago Dad turned 89. And two weeks from now will mark three years since Dad walked in the door as my new roommate – I’ve now lived here longer with him than without him. Oh, what a time we’ve had. But, now, after six or eight months of relatively good health, he’s beginning to show signs of slowing down again, and this next month has a big trial in store.
In the next week or two, Dad’s going to have his first real driving test in the last, oh, 70 or so years, thanks to me tattling on him to his doctors. A week ago today, he and the driver of the F-150 he pulled out in front of nearly died. I live on a tricky spot on the main drag of the town I live in – you really have to crane your neck to the left to ensure you’ve got a good view of oncoming traffic before you pull out into the flow. I was standing in the front yard last Friday afternoon as Dad was working his way into making a left to head for one of his twice-weekly poker games at the senior center. I watched, horrifed, as he pulled out of the driveway and right into the path of the Ford pick-up, which was doing a good 35- to 40 mph. Mercury’s wings must have been visiting Dad’s Marquis, because he managed to finish the turn (in a wide fashion) just in time for the truck, horn blaring, driver’s eyes glaring, to make it past the driveway without even a taillight glaze.
He and I chatted over Friday night’s dinner, and he recognized how close he’d been to a really bad situation. He simply hadn’t seen the truck. From where I was standing, watching him check right and left, it seemed that maybe he just wasn’t turning his head hard enough to the left. But I was at an angle. I spent the weekend not knowing what to do. In the end, on Monday I called his doctor’s office and spoke to one of the nurses. She talked with the doctor, who’s been a party to driving conversations for the last nine months. The message back from the doctor two days later was that Dad needs to go through a special driver-evaluation program led by a very well respected rehab center here on Cape Cod. If he were to choose not to follow the doctor’s orders, his license would get pulled.
I was very relieved someone else thought this was important. And the rehab-center program was what I’d been thinking about, too, even though he’ll have to do it as a private-pay patient, since Medicare doesn’t think such things are important enough to pay for (at approximately $300 a pop). But they’ll take 90 minutes to look at his mobility, eyesight and reaction time – a big improvement over the lame driver-competency test he took through the state a year and a half ago. So we’ll have a more objective viewpoint as to his fitness on the road. I’m very grateful that he didn’t bite my head off yesterday when I told him about what I’d done, and about the evaluation he needed to endure.
The question I’m facing now is, what do I want them to find? Short term, him not driving poses issues. Minimally, I’d have to chauffeur him to the senior center a couple times a week, not such a big deal. But, on the days he’s not going to poker or his men’s coffee group, he usually just takes off for two or three hours, for a late breakfast or lunch, miscellaneous errands and just general sightseeing. It gives me a few hours to work and him some independence. And it gives both of us some to remember what life is like without the other making his presence known.
Yes, there are some systems in the area to help him get around without a car. There’s a bus he can use, if he calls 24 hours ahead of time, and there are certainly cabs for a spontaneous lunch out. We could hire someone to drive him out for lunch and errands. But – and I don’t mean to sound like a whiner about this – getting such new systems in place is work. Real work. If you haven’t done this kind of thing before, you really don’t know how much effort it can take. And, if past experience is any indicator, Dad is likely to make the effort for a week or two, and then just give in to the sofa’s siren call, which leaves me working in the second floor bedroom, all of 20 feet away from the downstairs TV, with my office door shut and the humidifier on full time to try to drown out CNN/Golf Channel/Tennis Channel droning as I attempt to keep up with a fortunately large workload.
On the other hand, if he passes the evaluation, what does that mean? How long can I continue to trust his capabilities behind the wheel? In his state of health, how long does a passing grade maintain its relevance – a month? Two months? I might rest easy for a week, or a couple months, but then what? I’m back to looking out windows every time he gets behind the wheel to see how he’s doing pulling into traffic – and then crossing my fingers the whole time he’s away.
Having his license pulled would provide me with the most definite assurance that Dad can’t injure someone else. But, at the same time, I can’t help but think of such a form letter from the DMV as a kind of death knell. Eskimos, historically, sent their ailing elders out onto ice flows to die, if those legends we’ve heard for years are correct. Here, we do just the opposite. In a society that cherishes independence and spontaneity, we remove mobility. And, in so doing, I wonder if we aren’t surrendering our parents to the same failure to thrive that turned those older folks from colder climates into just another polar bear’s Saturday night special.