Having “The Talk” About Dementia and Driving

Having “The Talk” About Dementia and Driving

When a loved one is diagnosed with dementia, his or her personal safety becomes a top priority for family members. And according to the Family Caregiver Alliance, “One of the greatest concerns that families and caregivers face is whether or not that person should drive.” 

Memory care authorities explain that a diagnosis of dementia might not mean that your loved one must stop driving immediately. They advise that in the early stages, some individuals might still have the cognitive ability to drive safely.

However, it is also vital for family members to understand that dementia is a progressive disease and your loved one’s ability to function normally will continue to decline over time. A worsening of symptoms is typically seen in the form of memory loss, visual-spatial disorientation and decreased cognitive function – all of which directly affect driving skills and will eventually mean it is no longer safe for your loved one to drive.

Says Stacey Houseknecht, NHA, CTRS, ADC, Administrator at Saunders House in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, “One of the greatest challenges that families of loved ones with dementia face is the highly emotional issue of giving up the car keys. Driving is a regular part of our daily lives and is also symbolic of our personal independence and our ability to move about freely.

“Understandably, the realization that driving may no longer be possible can be deeply upsetting for many people with dementia. It represents a loss of personal freedom and the end of an era in their lives.

Some loved ones will recognize the risk to themselves and others and give up driving voluntarily. However, others may resist and insist that they can still drive safely.

“Therefore, it is important for family members to be aware of the warning signs of unsafe driving – some of which might be evident even before a diagnosis of dementia – while also preparing to ‘have the talk’ with their loved to avoid a potential tragedy. While most loved ones will eventually comply, in some cases family members might be forced to take away the keys in light of the risks involved.” 

Know the Warning Signs of Unsafe Driving 

Determining when a loved one with dementia can no longer drive safely necessitates careful observation by family members, friends and caregivers. The following list compiled by the Alzheimer’s Association provides warning signs that it's time for the person with dementia to stop driving:

  • Forgetting how to locate familiar places
  • Failing to observe traffic signs
  • Making slow or poor decisions in traffic
  • Driving at an inappropriate speed
  • Becoming angry or confused while driving
  • Hitting curbs
  • Using poor lane control
  • Making errors at intersections
  • Confusing the brake and gas pedals
  • Returning from a routine drive later than usual
  • Forgetting the destination you are driving to during the trip 

Tips for Having “The Talk” About Driving and Reaching a Solution

The Mayo Clinic, the Alzheimer’s Association, and other dementia care authorities offer valuable advice on having the talk about curtailing driving. For example:

  • If possible, initiate the dialogue about your loved one’s continued driving early and agree ahead of time on his or her retirement from driving together.
  • Understand that losing the independence that driving provides can be upsetting to your loved one. It is important to acknowledge your loved one's feelings of loss, while at the same time ensuring their safety and the safety of others. Be as empathetic and supportive as possible.
  • Express your concerns in a calm, reasoned manner. Becoming emotional may only worsen an already difficult and emotionally charged situation.
  • If you encounter resistance, explain that it is purely a safety issue and appeal to your loved one’s sense of responsibility.
  • Stress the safety factors and offer alternative means of transportation such as by family and friends, taxi, Uber, Lyft and community senior transportation services.
  • You can also ask your loved one’s doctor or personal attorney to support your position. Many experts believe the family physician should play a prominent role in any discussion of driving and dementia.
  • Another useful approach in assessing the driving abilities of a person with dementia is to arrange for an independent driving evaluation. Prior to the evaluation, you should inform the examiners that the person being evaluated has dementia. Driver assessments are typically available through driver rehabilitation programs or State Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
  • If your loved one continues to resist, you can take away the car keys as a last resort.  Remember, their safety and that of others must always be your highest priority. As added protection, you can also disable the car or remove the car completely.
  • Finally, do not blame yourself if the conversation does not go well and even becomes heated. Remember, dementia not only impairs judgement, but also causes personality changes, agitation and even aggressiveness. It is neither your fault nor your loved one’s, and ultimately it is all about their safety. 

Easing the Transition When Driving is No longer Safe

Stacey adds, “You can help your loved one through the transition process by having family members and friends ready to drive them for errands and other transportation needs. Taking them along for a ride and keeping them involved is preferable to leaving them at home, which can add to their feeling of isolation and lack of freedom.

“You can also create an account for your loved one with a taxi service so they won’t have to worry about handling money or paying the correct amount. This will offer them the independence of having transportation available where and when they want it – with your knowledge, of course. Your community’s van service for older adults is also a useful option.”

We encourage you to contact us with any questions you might have on Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, as well as to stay current on a variety of other senior health and care topics by viewing the latest articles on our website. 

We’d Love to Hear Your Thoughts!

If you have comments or questions about our blog on Having “The Talk” About Dementia and Driving, we’d love to hear from you. We also encourage you to share any of your caregiving experiences with us in our comments section. 

Discover Our Healthy Tradition of Care and Wellness

Located adjacent to Lankenau Medical Center, Saunders House – part of Main Line Senior Care Alliance – has a celebrated tradition of providing exceptional care and services to seniors and their families. It’s a tradition we’re proud to continue.

Today, Saunders House offers a range of services – including short-term rehabilitation, traditional nursing care, restorative care, memory care, respite care and specialized care for individuals with visual impairments – all in a setting that is warm, welcoming and nurturing.

For more information on Saunders House, our Short-Term Rehabilitation program and other professional services, please call us today at 610.658.5100 or contact us online.

Disclaimer: The articles and tip sheets on this website are offered by Saunders House and Main Line Senior Care Alliance for general informational and educational purposes and do not constitute legal or medical advice. For legal or medical advice, please contact your attorney or physician.


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