Driving and Dementia

Senior man behind the wheel. We explore driving and dementia

Learn about driving and dementia in the helpful article:

Living with Dementia: When Does Driving Become Unsafe?

By Ava M. Stinnett

A friend or loved one is diagnosed with dementia. Among the many concerns for caregivers and family members is determining when it’s no longer safe for the individual to drive. There are various signs to look for when assessing whether it’s time to give up the car keys; however, something just as important as safety is what the loss of autonomy will mean to your friend or loved one.

Try to imagine what it would be like if you could no longer drive. To most of us, driving means freedom and self-reliance. It’s a natural part of being an adult. Losing the independence that comes with driving may be upsetting. Having to rely on others to get around may feel uncomfortable for the person with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Keeping all of this in mind, how and when should you intervene?

A family member with dementia often adjusts better if they are involved in discussions about making the transition from driver to passenger. Some people, aware of the risks, will give up driving easily. Others may refuse to discuss the topic of driving, or they may exhibit resentment or anger when you start the conversation. You’ll want to be patient and acknowledge these feelings. The goal is to allow your loved one to maintain the highest level of independence and mobility while avoiding traffic risks. In some cases, it may be necessary to ask a physician or your family attorney to reinforce the message about safe driving.

When first diagnosed, a person with dementia or Alzheimer’s may still possess the skills necessary for safe driving. But because the disease is progressive, eventually driving skills will decrease and they will have to give up driving. Look for some of the following signs that indicate it’s time to limit or stop driving:

  • Loss of coordination getting in and out of the vehicle
  • Difficulty judging distance and space (e.g., parks inappropriately, hits curbs, drifts into other lanes of traffic)
  • Forgetting how to locate familiar places; returning from a routine drive later than usual; unexpected dents in the car
  • Difficulty seeing pedestrians, objects, or other vehicles
  • Making errors at intersections; difficulty with turns, lane changes, or highway exits
  • Failing to observe traffic signs
  • Stops in traffic for no reason
  • Driving at inappropriate speeds
  • Becoming increasingly irritated, confused, or nervous when driving

Once it’s determined that driving poses a hazard on the road, arrange for other forms of transportation such as friends or family members, taxis, public transportation, or special transportation services for older adults. (Note that taxis and public transportation work best for those in the early to middle stages of dementia.) In addition to transportation needs, the Alzheimer’s Association (800-272-3900) and the Eldercare Locator (800-677-1116) can help you find local resources and community services for having prescription medicines, groceries, or meals delivered to the home.

Bringing up the topic of turning over the car keys is a process. Over time, caregivers and doctors will need to begin the discussion and may need to return to it several times. Just as critical is knowing whether state laws require doctors to report any medical conditions that may affect their patients’ ability to drive safely. It’s never too soon to start planning a strategy to ease a loved one’s transition to becoming a non-driver.