Should my dad be driving with mild dementia?

A fellow caregiver asked...

Should my dad be driving with mild dementia? My father has always been an excellent driver, and at 85 he still doesn't seem to have any trouble driving. However, he was recently diagnosed with mild dementia. According to my dad, his doctor said it was OK for him to continue driving. I hate to second-guess the doctor, but that doesn't sound like very good advice to me. Is it safe for him to drive with dementia?

Expert Answer

Elizabeth Dugan, a Fellow of the Gerontology Institute, University of Massachusetts Boston, is the author of Driving Dilemma: The Complete Resource Guide for Older Drivers and Their Families.

Your concern is well founded. All forms of dementia can undermine memory, attention span, vision, and judgment -- which can seriously erode one's ability to drive safely. Some people with dementia lack the judgment to realize that they should no longer drive.

All the same, if your father's dementia is mild, it may be OK for him to continue driving for now. But it is important that he understand that he will have to give up driving eventually. When it comes to dementia, it's not a matter of whether a person should stop driving but when. Dementia is progressive, although it progresses at different rates for different people.

You can support your father by addressing the situation directly and helping him develop a gradual plan for giving up driving. He is likely distressed and worried about his diagnosis, and it will be helpful for him to express his concerns openly and to brainstorm with you about how to handle driving and other issues in the weeks and months ahead.

If he resists the idea of giving up the car keys when the time comes, talk to his physician. Although privacy laws forbid physicians from disclosing medical information without a patient's permission (unless you have medical power of attorney), you can still let his doctor know that you are concerned your father could pose a driving risk. Your father will probably listen to his doctor when she tells him it's time for him to stop driving, but if he refuses to stop, you may have to take stronger measures.