Caregiver Voices

Dad Will Fail His Driver's Test. (That's the Plan.)

My dad is in the early stages of dementia and becoming increasingly forgetful. He’s not exactly a danger behind the wheel—or rather, he hasn’t hurt anybody yet—but we're definitely at a fork in the road.

A Family Caregiver Story by Elizabeth Hanson

Dad's wife Elaine tells me he still navigates his pickup to the grocery store and barber shop, but sometimes returns without his wallet or a haircut. By now someone should have taken away the keys or convinced him the truck was stolen.

But by “someone” I don’t mean me.

I’m not close with my father. My parents divorced when I was a baby and Dad moved away and married Elaine. I only rekindled my relationship with my dad, Paul, about 10 years ago when I decided I wanted my three elementary-school-age children to know their grandfather.

Stepping In to Help

Elaine is an independent woman with a successful scientific research career. She never wanted children and never had any—which is fortunate because she’s not particularly maternal. To me, they’re more like an aunt and uncle who I only see every so often. But even so, I have started to feel some responsibility for my dad as he ages. Go figure.

I can see that Elaine has her head in the sand about dad’s declining capacity—she expresses annoyance with his lapses. I suppose it’s easier to resent your spouse’s failures than to accept that your new role is one you never wanted: caregiver.

Mercifully, Dad’s driver’s license has expired, and he’s required to take an in-person test to renew it. Elaine asks me to take him to the Department of Motor Vehicles for his test. I can see what she’s thinking: if she tells him he can’t drive, she’ll be the bad guy. Why not let the DMV play the heavy? So I go along with it.

Trying to Navigate the DMV

In line at the DMV, I watch Dad scan the room for someone to strike up a conversation with. After a long career in HVAC sales, he has the jovial personality of a relationship-builder. He finds his mark.

“What are you here for? Are you taking a test too?” he asks a portly older gentleman in khaki shorts and a pink polo shirt.

They banter politely while I hang back. At first Dad seems like he’s making sense, but then starts repeating a few lines over and over: “That’s the way they get ya. Yup. There’s no harm in trying.”

I look at the man apologetically as he leans away. In the car on the way over, I had noticed Dad was beginning to smell funky. Apparently getting him to bathe is another challenge Elaine is avoiding. Though it’s hot outside, he’s wearing his favorite flannel shirt and hiking pants―the same comfortable ensemble he puts on every day. Unaware that people are edging away from him, Dad sidles up to his new buddy and continues rambling.

Floating In and Out of Clarity

I’m embarrassed. “Come on, Dad. Let’s leave this nice man alone.” Dad looks confused. His whole life he’s relied on cheery conversation to ingratiate himself to strangers. Why is he being shushed now? At least he isn’t remarking loudly on someone’s weight, I think to myself. When he did that at a restaurant recently—commenting loudly about the size of the woman at the next table—I thought about printing up business cards that say, “Please pardon my father. He has dementia.”

Older man being comforted by daughter at DMV

DMV customers move around us as an automated voice calls out numbers and people make their way to different queues. There are signs and arrows everywhere. If you have a question, you can’t just ask it—you have to get back in line. It’s a confusing environment for even the most clear minded.

We finally get to the check-in window where a clerk hands Dad a form. His brow furrows. I’m a little surprised to see him struggle to understand how to fill it out, since he still reads books at home. I’ve noticed his abilities flowing in and out of clarity lately. One minute he’s scooping himself a bowl of ice cream as usual and the next he’s pulling on underwear over his pajama bottoms. At the moment he needs help remembering his birthdate. The clerk is giving us the side eye.

After prompting him through it, I guide Dad to the seating area and explain that we’ve got to wait for our number to be called. I can see him feign understanding, trying to demonstrate that he’s still got all his marbles together. He keeps pulling a paper slip from his pocket, comparing the number on his ticket to the digital numbers on screens around the room.

Dad Asks Why We're Here—Again

Because I’m a coward and have poor judgment, I think. Because making you suffer through this indignity is easier than telling you you're now an incapable driver. I want to blame Elaine but I’m a co-conspirator at this point. A robot voice calls Dad’s number.

Before he can fail the written test, Dad has to scan his thumbprint, pass an eye test, and have a photo taken. The woman at the desk asks Dad to place his thumb on the digital scanning pad.

“This one?” he asks, pointing his right index finger at her.

“No, this one,” she says, holding up her own thumb.

“This one?” Dad asks, now pointing his left index finger.

“No, this one,” she repeats, looking like she’s about to blow a gasket.

It’s like I’m watching Abbott and Costello performing their “Who’s on First?” routine. Finally the impatient clerk takes Dad’s wrinkled hand and presses his thumb on the pad. I can almost read the thought bubble above her head: “You’re my hundredth customer today—and it’s only 10:00 am.”

Next, I shuffle Dad over to the photo area where he stands on the yellow shoe marks painted on the floor for guidance. He faces the screen, turning his back to the photographer. I turn Dad around like he’s a kindergartener playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey. I know it’s not funny, but I’m laughing inside at the absurdity of this situation.

Maybe I'm the Real Ass Here

I should be calling off this scheme, but we’ve come this far. I’m committed to making a civil servant take away a good man’s freedom—to keep him and everyone else on the road safe.

Finally Dad is given his test paper and the clerk points him toward the exam area―a cordoned-off section with a dozen orange chairs lined up like a jury box. Eleven out of 12 seats are empty, so naturally Dad scoots past all the empty seats and parks himself right next to the kind gentleman he befriended earlier. The unsuspecting guy politely smiles and nods, which Dad takes as an invitation to engage. Chatty Paul clicks into gear and asks his pal how to fill in the answer sheet.

“No talking!” the DMV clerk yells.

Thirty heads swing around to look at the two men who startle like school boys caught with their slingshots out. I wither inside. But Dad recovers almost immediately, reverting to his usual jovial self. I can almost see the wheels turning in his mind: “If I’m nice enough, you’ll help me.” He nudges the man again, and looks at his paper.

Suddenly the clerk stands up and shouts: “You’re cheating!”

Everyone in the Room is Horrified

That includes the other DMV customers, me, Dad, and his poor partner in crime who is completely confounded, wondering what just happened to him. Dad tries to explain to the clerk, but she cuts him off.

“No!” she yells. “You failed! You’re done.”

Dad deflates like a punctured tire. I wish the clerk hadn’t acted so harshly, but I know she’s got a tough job.

I coax Dad out of the testing area, apologizing to the man whose day was just ruined. Maybe Dad will forget this shameful episode. I know I won’t. The look of despair and bewilderment on his sweet face is going to haunt me. Will he re-experience today’s humiliation every time he wants to go someplace?

I wish I’d thought ahead about how this was going to play out. Going forward I know that I want to help preserve my father’s dignity as he loses more and more of himself. There will be more tests for all of us as we head down this road together. I need to remember that the most loving route for Dad might be uncomfortable for me. But maybe playing the bad guy—and having the fortitude to initiate tough, painful conversations—is exactly what it takes at times to be a good daughter.

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