Driving is a powerful symbol of independence and adulthood. We all know
that the concentration and quick reaction times required for safe driving
can gradually decline with age. For people with Alzheimer’s disease
or other forms of dementia, this decline is sped up dramatically. If you
are caring for a parent or loved one who is suffering from dementia, they
may no longer be safe on the road. You may need to limit their driving
— or stop it completely.
The short-term memory loss caused by dementia makes it easy to get lost, even on familiar streets. A person with dementia will also experience a decline in the ability to judge distances and predict potential problems, which can make negotiating through traffic dangerous. Dementia can also make it difficult for a person to prioritize all of the visual cues they are confronted with. Something irrelevant, like a sign for a restaurant or a pretty front garden can easily distract the driver from the visuals they need to focus on, like traffic signals or brake lights.
Should they stop driving?
Opinions differ on whether a person who has been diagnosed with dementia should continue to drive at all. Some may voluntarily stop driving in the early stages of their disease when they’re still able to process the pros and cons. Some people may begin to limit their driving, sticking to short trips in very familiar areas.
When a person with dementia continues to drive, look for the warning signs of dangerous driving, like:
- difficulty with changing lanes or making turns
- confusing the gas and brake pedals
- not observing traffic signals and signs
- slow decision making on the road
- hitting the curb
- driving at inappropriate speeds – too fast OR too slow
- becoming uncharacteristically confused or angry while driving
If you’re on the fence about whether it’s dangerous for the person with dementia to drive, ask yourself whether you would feel safe as a passenger in their car. Would you allow children to ride with them? If the answer to these questions is no, you know it’s no longer safe for them to drive.
Help them adjust
When a person with dementia has stopped driving, help them adjust by arranging alternative transportation. Make sure that friends and family members are available to help them run errands, as public transit can be very confusing to navigate. You may be able to arrange an account with a car service, so they can get from place to place without having to negotiate payments or handle money.
Consider all the ways that errands can be eliminated. Many essential supplies, like groceries and prescriptions, can be delivered. Most other shopping can be accomplished quite easily online. Many hairstylists will make housecalls.
What if they don’t want to stop driving?
What if the person with dementia wants to continue driving, regardless of the danger? Or they have decided they would like to start driving again? In this situation, you may need to …
- Have a doctor step in. Sometimes it helps to hear it from an “authority figure”. Having a physician tell you that you need to stop driving can carry more weight than your family and friends. Get it in writing if you anticipate that they may need a reminder.
- Keep it out of sight. Park the car somewhere else – on a different street or in a closed and locked garage. Don’t keep the keys in a familiar, visible spot.
- Disable the car. Remove a battery cable or something else which will prevent the car from starting, or have a mechanic install a “kill switch” security mechanism.
- Sell the car. Consider selling the car if it isn’t needed by anyone else
When someone is forced to stop driving, they are going to feel a great loss of independence which will not be easy to accept. Be patient and kind, but stand firm. The consequences of not stepping in to prevent someone with dementia from driving can be devastating.