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

over 4 years, said...

Thank you, thank you! CA law requires doctors to report Early AD. Based on questions asked doc by DMV she reported Moderate AD as opposed to diagnosis of Early AD. Moderate is an automatic license suspension. My husband had a tantrum insisting he could drive. I had to sell my car and am driving his BMW which I think is what is causing the trouble. I had to keep the car because I co-signed the lease a year ago when the salesman and I tried to talk him out of leasing a new car for 3 more years. I have arranged to either drive him or hire a driver or he goes with a friend to play golf and tennis or appts. That I could do. However, he constantly criticizes my driving and I then make dumb mistakes myself when he is in the car. If you will pardon the pun, he is driving me crazy. He is a very angry man and takes it out on me. I know this is normal but having trouble dealing. I feel that if I could get rid of the car maybe it would help. I can trade for another BMW but not for anything else as breaking a lease carries a very big monetary penalty. Any ideas appreciated. Thank you, mariannef

over 5 years, said...

Taking away driving privileges is one of the most difficult things to handle. The car for the person with dementia is not only a sign of independence, but as they have 'wandered' into dementia, they have probably 'wandered' in their old friend, the car. Since people with dementia usually forget short-term things, they will continue to ask about driving, or why they can no longer drive. Be patient. At some point, they will be relieved that they no long have to think about how to get where, they just tell you what they want or need, and you have to figure out where. It's OK to drop your chores to take them somewhere for about the first 2-3 months. Then start weaning them off the instant gratification - say, I have to finish this chore first, then we'll go. Then you make sure they've used the bathroom, found their purses or wallets, are dressed appropriately before you leave. Sometimes, if you wait about 30 minutes, they will have forgotten that they need to go out at all. Use your best judgement on whether the delaying tactics are needed, or whether they truly need to 'go now'. Remember, the seniors are less likely to need 'instant gratification', that's a part of the BabyBoomer, Gen X and Gen Y's problems.

over 5 years, said...

My sister, brother & I take care of my parents and we are dealing with this with my dad. A big, looks on the outside as healthy man who has been taking care of his self since 13 years. So we struggle with the hurt that he has over not being independent anymore. I have to bite my tongue to not complain about dropping everything to drive him and my mother somewhere, just so he won't feel that they are a bother. What a tightrope. These pointers will help.

almost 6 years, said...

I cared for demnita persons for about 7 years and thought I knew most of the ins and outs but now that my husband is showing signes I needed all the out side advice I can get most of it is old school but it is a reminder to me of how much if you dont use it you lose it still is the key so keep up the good work. Thanks again.

over 6 years, said...

I'm only 5'3 and I figured I was simply too small to be in security at all then my back is screwed up and then I have nightmares. I'm sorry I insulted anyone you respect and I didn't know. I figured the reason she attacked me was I was small and that no one would respect me because I was small. You have every right there is to be insulted and every right there is to be angry with me. I just believe they are scared and need a very large person to make them less scared.

over 6 years, said...

OK, so enough about asking for the biggest, baddest cop on the force. I am the widow of a police officer. If you would like a member of law enforcement there when you speak with a parent/partner about stopping driving, call the non-emergency number for the police department, and ask to speak with a Community Services Officer (CSO). You can meet with them to discuss your concerns, and then ask them if they would meet with you and your loved one to talk about driving. Make sure that you express your concern about the possibility of violence. The CSO can determine whether they, as unarmed police officers will be enough of a presence to help, or whether an armed officer needs to be at the appointment. SIZE OF AN OFFICER MAKES NO DIFFERENCE. I have seen petite little 5'4" officers take out giants without drawing a weapon, other than their nightstick or asp. They will be a very strong presence. I still say, that if one elder in the house can drive and the other should not, it is very difficult to keep keys away from someone that really wants them. Possibly it's time for both to stop driving. Best of luck to you.

over 6 years, said...

I wish I could hug you and tell you it'll be ok dwilson94 I will pray for you. You understand that if you do not do this then an innocent person could die. I think you need one of your friends or a very large police officer to be there when you do this or even a small one but I think you need a big one to make you feel safe. So request a very large police officer when you confront your elder so that if he bops you one the police officer saw that and you can press charges for assault

over 6 years, said...

Do not be afraid of your elder's anger they might kill someone like some teenager who is going to work or classes, some mom or some dad or some kids who wanted a slice of pizza. They are a risk to everyone you need to stand up get your neighbor or husband or wife to hold you hand or get a cop in there if you think he might hurt you. Like if you are scared of him you can ask for a police officer to prevent him from hurting you and remember if he's like that imagine what he is like driving the car his temper tantrums mean his judgement is bad and he might kill someone. Find a very large male that is built like a refridgerator I mean a big one you know half back sizeweighing at least 180lbs or just ask 911 to give you a police officer and a really big one if you are scared of your elder and need to get him off the road or just provoke him into hitting you press charges for assault and he'll be in jail for a while and then you can talk the DMV into revoking the license to drive and then you can disable or sell the car. The first step is to call the DMV and tell them you think your relative cannot operate a motor vehicle safely and then get the cops to send a very large police officer when you talk to your relative. Since you are probably afraid of him so you need a jumbo sized police officer to scare him ask for the biggest officer they have you know a really enormous cop like the size of Hightower or House on police academy. If you get a really huge one then you do not have to be afraid and even with a small one then they have weapons and stuff.

over 6 years, said...

I have given up driving at night and I don't drive far from my home. Was not a hard decision for me because I don't won't to be in a wreck or cause a wreck. I know the time will come probably sooner than later when I won't be able to drive at all. I am only 59, but I will adjust with God's help. I am thankful that my family lives close by. Pat

over 6 years, said...

I am currently involved in this situation and my dad will go into a rage if we try to take the keys away from him or disable the car or sell it. This is going to get very ugly. He will probably take my mom's car keys and use her car anyway even if the DMV revokes his license. My dad should not be driving, he has not been diagnosed with dementia, nor has been deemed incompetent. Does anyone have any suggestions?

over 6 years, said...

We had to do all of these things, except disabling the car. We loaned the car out to one child, then had DMV's Driver Safety Dept (CA) test the driver. They never made it to the car test - they couldn't follow simple instructions on the test, nor could they give their full street address. Most difficult thing that we had to do. Then I became the chauffeur - using their car, kept at my home, and their gas, plus they paid for the insurance on that car. Don't delay. If you suspect it might be time, it's probably beyond time to do this. Get your family's Dr.s on board, and get them tested by DMV (do it as a surprise). Don't admit that you turned them in - family members can do this anonymously.

almost 7 years, said...

the deed has been done for a couple of months, but we are still getting the "why can't I drive" line....