What Are the Signs That a Person With Alzheimer's Should Stop Driving?

A fellow caregiver asked...

What are the signs that a person with Alzheimer's should stop driving?

Expert Answer

Barbara Repa, a Caring.com senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

There's a simple litmus test for gauging whether a person who has Alzheimer's -- or similar forms of dementia -- may be a hazard behind the wheel. Observe whether he or she is consistently unable to master tasks requiring sequential steps that used to come easily: following a multistep recipe, programming a VCR, doing the laundry, sorting and disposing of recycling and garbage, staying in the game during a round of bridge. The reason? Experts say that the same multistep thinking required for such tasks is also required for driving.

Here are some other things you can do:

Taking it to the streets. If you have cause for concern, ride along as a passenger in the person's car to observe his or her driving over time. If you're caregiving from a distance, you might ask a friend or relative who lives close by to follow the driver or take a brief ride as a passenger.

Observers should pay special attention not only to obvious driving snafus but to the more subtle ones such as confusion, hesitancy, stress, and anger while behind the wheel.

Specifically, look for slips in mental acuity and motor skills that may indicate that the person is losing the ability to drive safely, including:

Difficulty in turning to see when backing up.

Forgetting to wear a seat belt.

Disregarding stop signs, traffic lights, and other road signs.

Failing to yield the right of way at intersections.

Driving too quickly or too slowly.

Getting lost or confused, even on familiar routes.

Getting honked at or passed frequently by other drivers.

Depending on having another person in the car for directions and instructions.

Being distracted or unaware of other vehicles or pedestrians.

Veering in and out of a traffic lane.

Parking inappropriately.

Such signs should serve as warnings that it may be time for the driver to stop -- especially if the person observing no longer feels comfortable riding along as a passenger.

Watch for other telltale signs. Some evidence of diminished driving skills may become evident even when the driver is not on the road. They include:

New dents, scratches, or other damage to his or her vehicle.

Formal warnings or tickets for moving traffic violations.

New medication that causes drowsiness or agitation.

Get evidence from the pros. If your own or another person's observations have alerted you to the probability that the driver may be beginning to stray or struggle, consider collecting some empirical evidence.

For example, there are formal medical tests that measure reflexes, vision, attention, and flexibility -- all essential to safe driving. Available from rehabilitation centers, hospitals, and some Veterans Administration Medical Centers, these tests range in comprehensiveness -- and also range in cost, from free to $1,000. For some drivers, however, especially those who have a respect for the medical establishment, they may deliver the best and highest proof of being unable to drive safely. For help in finding tests offered locally that are most fitting for your needs and budget, contact the nearest office of the Area Agency on Aging.

Finally, consider enlisting a driver rehabilitation specialist to assess the person's ability to navigate while on the road. Most such specialists administer both written and road tests. They also teach techniques and recommend equipment for safer driving if possible. To find a certified driver rehabilitation specialist in your area, contact the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists. If you're not able to find a testing specialist through that association, contact the nearest Department of Motor Vehicles or local driving schools for more information.