Top 5 Mistakes Families Make About Dementia and Driving

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Trust your instincts when it comes to worrying about someone with memory impairment who's still driving, even at this relatively early stage of the disease process. Researchers know that family members' concerns about driving are a better predictor of actual problems than the driver's self-perception. (People with dementia famously underestimate how their driving skills have deteriorated.)

Top mistakes families often make:

1. Being wary of addressing the subject head-on

Families often avoid the subject, fearing that they're being too insulting or patronizing to their loved one. It certainly can be a difficult conversation. But you won't know until you venture into it; some people with early dementia are relieved to have the issue brought into the open.

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Once there's a dementia diagnosis, it's important to address coping strategies in all areas of life for problems that are coming. So you have to at least start the dialogue. Keep the focus practical: "Now what?"

2. Letting the person continue driving too long

Don't wait until there's a pile of tickets or a series of fender benders (or even just one!). You can't know whether the next mistake will hurt or kill a pedestrian or another driver.

It can be hard to know exactly when your loved one is unsafe behind the wheel. But "sooner rather than later" is the general rule of thumb. Try the "grandchildren test" : Would you let your loved one drive your child (or grandchild) somewhere? Hesitating or having qualms is a sign that you already know in your gut that there's a problem.

3. Taking away the keys too abruptly

With early dementia, there's usually a transition period for safe driving: The person may realize he or she doesn't drive well at night or on highways, for example, and give these up first.

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Some experts believe that driving short, familiar routes is OK in the very earliest stages of dementia. Use this time to research and talk about alternatives, so when the time comes to end driving, it's not a sudden, dramatic scene.

4. Not realizing the emotional significance of a car

Driving is more than a skill. It's an emblem of independence. Acknowledge how important the mobility of driving is to your loved one. Work to reassure that you will help find alternate ways for him or her to get around and continue to lead a productive life. Look into volunteer carpools or chauffeuring from family and friends, local ride-share programs, and local transport options.

5. Believing there's "nothing we can do" to stop a determined driver

"Desperate times call for desperate measures" is an old truism that applies here. If hiding the keys isn't working, consider disabling the vehicle. Take it to the shop for servicing -- but in reality take it to another relative's house. Sell it, if you or another person has the authority to do so. Ask the Department of Motor Vehicles to evaluate your loved one because of suspicions about his or her safety behind the wheel.

Learn state-by-state driving laws for older adults.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio