Signs of Dementia

Travels with Dad

—-This is a story of a complex relationship with my father, Al, who I came to love and understand after he was diagnosed with dementia.—-


In 1988 when Al was 58, he retired. My mother had gone back to work only 5 years earlier, and wasn’t about to follow him. That was OK with him. He adjusted very well to retirement, managing his free time quite successfully.

For the first 7-8 years of his work-free life, Al left the house every day to do things like visit his mother, go to the mall to watch movies, and play golf. He and my mother also did some long awaited traveling to places like South Carolina, Colorado, Utah, Washington State, Alaska, Vancouver, and the Canadian Rockies. They even lucked out one day while in Aspen, when they stumbled upon John Denver making a commercial. John was nice enough to allow my father to take a picture of him and Mom.  This was the highlight of that trip.

As time went on, Dad’s solo day trips became less than routine and a little troublesome. For example, one day my mother received a call at work from a Sheriff saying that they had Al and were bringing him home. The officer explained to Mom that Al ran out of gas in a town about 40 miles from home, and began wandering around the neighborhood looking for help. A concerned resident called the police. The police arrived on the scene, and quickly concluded that he was harmless.

The Officer’s call to Mom was initially met with silence.  Mom was trying to process what was being told to her.  Although Al had been displaying signs of dementia for a while, the fact that he let something like this happen added a new dimension to his on-going loss of self and independence.  She finally managed to respond, and agreed to meet them at home.  She quietly met with her boss to let him know she had to leave.  She told him the reason, and he was very understanding.

When Al and the Officer arrived at home, he brought my father into the house and sat with my parents on the screened-in porch.  He conveyed that he was very concerned for my father’s safety, and was also very understanding of my mother’s position. He went to great lengths to avoid embarrassing my father, while also showing great compassion towards my mother.

The Officer wanted to have a private conservation with my mother about her thoughts on Al’s ability to drive.  He turned to Al, and asked if he minded that he talk to my mother alone.  Al said very politely, “Oh, sure, go ahead”, and left.   My mother was so relieved that he complied, but was also in shock that he didn’t resist.   His compliance with this request translated into the idea that he didn’t quite grasp the gravity of this situation, and that they were going to be talking about him.  Another sad realization of his deteriorating condition.

The officer asked Mom if she was concerned about his driving skills.  She explained that she was no more concerned with his ability to “drive”, than she was with any other 70 year old on the road.  She was so distressed and worried that this Official was going to arrange to have AL’s license revoked.     Driving and going places is at the heart of his existence.  She wasn’t ready to accept the idea that he would be paralyzed if something like this was mandated.    It would also majorly influence her role and responsibilities by having to enforce this.  She imagined that it would be quite impossible to prevent Al from driving, especially since she was still working full time.

The officer didn’t push the issue.  He mainly appeared to be interested in gaining insight into what my mother’s thoughts were about Al’s driving abilities.   He seemed satisfied with her answer, and went on his way.

Whenever something unusual like this happened, Mom would call me and fill me in.  I remember listening to this unbelievable story and wondering how he could have possibly let this happen.  He was ALWAYS in control.

It was a rude awakening for me…that my father was becoming a different person. A person who is now becoming dependent on others for his safety and well-being.  I felt an overwhelming sense of pity for him.  I tried really hard to understand who this man was now, and secretly worried about who he was becoming.

I also worried about how my mother would manage him as this disease progressed.  I worried about her health and well-being.  I worried in general about the unknown future, but tried very hard to avoid that trap.

This event was a turning point for Mom. It became clear to her that he required more supervision. He continued to drive after that day, but Mom ensured that his car always had gas.

After spending some time processing this event, my mother made the difficult decision to retire.

This was a sad transition for her.


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