Before I go, I have something to say

Taking Away the Keys

I never had to take the car keys away from my father. As his cancer advanced and his faculties declined, there was no longer any question of driving. The car sat in the garage, to be sold, months later, after he was gone. Mom never learned to drive, and she wasn’t about to do so in her 70’s.

As Dad’s health declined, Mom made all the decisions. When to call the ambulance, when to inform the pastor, when to talk to Hospice about installing a bed in the living room. She wasn’t ready to care for Dad at home, and as it turned out, she didn’t have to. He died in the hospital elevator, as the ambulance waited to take him home. It was as if he planned it that way.

Mom organized the funeral and the reception afterward. I wanted to help, but she was determined. I guess it was good for her to be so busy, though she nearly fainted by the time the lunch was over.

After that, she started sorting through his things. She sold the car, found a charity to take his clothes. She invited her brother and nephew to go through his tools and take what they could use.

Once Mom had just about stripped the house of any trace of the only man she ever loved, she started weeding out her own things. She explained, “I don’t want you to have to go through what I did.” I didn’t protest, though it made me uneasy. I knew she was trying to spare me that hardest kind of spring cleaning.

When she began to fail, her mind taken piecemeal by Alzheimer’s, I had some idea what to do. It felt odd, being the one in charge. I have an older sister, but she is mentally disabled, so the only people I could consult were my few remaining aunts and uncles. All of them, bless their hearts, told me everything I was doing was the right thing to do.

When she fractured her hip and couldn’t remember how it happened, I took her to the doctor, who sent her to the hospital. When the social worker told me she could no longer live alone, I found the eldercare home run by the wonderful woman whose own mother lived to be 100 there. When Mom fell again, shattering her shoulder, and that wonderful woman said she could no longer care for my mother, I got her into a good nursing home in Dubuque.

She lived there a few years, perpetually confused about why she wasn’t in Davenport, and then one day she died, not of her dementia, but of heart failure. One moment she was standing in the hallway; the next, she sank to the floor and was gone. As her doctor told me later, a tone of wonder in his voice, “Iona went to heaven.” Then it was my turn to plan the funeral.

A good friend of mine who lost her parents years ago almost found herself in that caregiving role again, just last week. Desperately seeking a new place to live, she found an ad seeking a “companion” for an elderly woman. Bernice – not her real name – has two grown daughters who worry that she’s lonely, and doesn’t eat when she’s alone. My friend, let’s call her Annette, would be expected to prepare a lunch to eat with Bernice every day, and drive her places. I never asked, but I figured the rent would be free, or very low, especially by California standards.

They agreed to a week’s trial. At first, Bernice seemed distressed that a stranger was living in her house, but she quickly took to Annette’s big white dog. She was courteous, though unhappy about her medicine’s side effects and the usual annoyances of being 80 and not quite healthy. Annette is easygoing, and could make Bernice laugh. Maybe this would work.

Then came the day, late in the trial week, when Annette drove Bernice to the dentist, and did not wait for her, because the daughters wanted their mom to walk home alone. It was a nice day, and she used to love to walk. Annette waited uneasily, finally driving back, unsummoned. The dental assistant was furious with her, insisting that Bernice had suffered a “mini-stroke” right there in the office. Annette handed her phone over and told her to call the older daughter. My friend had no idea if Bernice was “okay” – who could tell, after only a few days’ acquaintance?

In the end, Annette realized Bernice needed not a companion, but a nurse and a counselor. It was clear to her that her daughters had misjudged terribly their mother’s level of need. She and the dog moved out, and I can only hope that Bernice will now receive the care she needs. It’s obvious to Annette and me, if not to them. But they are the ones who need to know, and need to act.

Let’s face it – “taking away the keys” is really code for “becoming your parents’ parent.” It’s hard, when Mom and Dad are no longer able to be in charge. They may think they are, despite the times Dad has gotten lost on the way to the grocery store, and how Mom keeps buying more wine, forgetting the 14 bottles already at home.

Intervening in their lives means being willing to see all that. It means paying attention, and, sometimes, standing up to your siblings when they’re not seeing the same danger signs. But it’s the kind and honorable thing to do. It may feel wrong at first, but it’s one of the best, last gifts you can give to the people who raised you. Sometimes taking away the keys is the way to give back their dignity.

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