Driving and dementia: what you need to know

The subject of driving and dementia is a very hot one and can result in conflict within families about whether their parent should stop driving.  In my own life, I was the one who had encouraged Mom to get her memory tested because of her forgetfulness. As a result of these memory tests, Mom lost her license. She bore quite a grudge and blamed me for a long time.  I also know from my work with other caregivers that the issue of whether your parent should give up driving is a touchy and often taboo subject.

Signs that it may be time to give up the keys

Families sometimes have trouble identifying a point when driving does become a problem. Because dementia progresses slowly, a big change may go unnoticed at any one time.

Warning signs to look for:

  • fender benders (hitting-bumping- scraping-denting damage on parent’s car)
  • parent getting lost driving to familiar places or forgetting where they are going
  • parent driving too slowly, other drivers honking or showing signs of irritation
  • trouble navigating (poor turns, merging problems, missing exits, going wrong way, missing or stopping at wrong colour light, near misses with other cars or pedestrians)
  • adult child co-piloting (giving directions and alerting parent of potential hazards)

Adult daughters and sons have different approaches to the driving issue–some believe driving should stop right away after a diagnosis of dementia while others try to keep the peace and ignore risky driving patterns to keep the peace. If the subject is raised with a parent, there are varied reactions:

Reactions to the ‘ it’s time to stop driving’ conversation

  • Some will be agreeable and recognize that their abilities have changed and as a result, restrict their driving or stop driving altogether.
  • Some simply fear harming someone or themselves and willingly give up driving.
  • Others may deny there is anything wrong and insist they have been driving their whole life and-refuse to accept losing their driving privilege.

While it is important to listen your parent’s feelings and respect their independence, safety is paramount. If all else fails, you may have to prevent access to their car. Consider hiding the car keys, replacing the keys with a set that won’t start the car, disabling or selling the car or moving the car out of sight to storage.

Who should give the news: ‘you should no longer be driving’

It is not advisable for the caregiver to notify the person they can’t drive anymore. It places the caregiver in a precarious situation where trust can potentially be broken. This can create tension and resentment in the relationship and interfere with future care decisions needing the person’s cooperation. It is best if an objective third party like a physician, social worker or other health practitioner explain why driving is no longer safe. In my case, the geriatrician told Mom and she graciously accepted the truth (so I thought) until I drove her back home. It was ALL my fault don’t you know.

Alternate transportation options

Alternative transportation may be expensive, however the costs should be compared to the costs of car maintenance and car insurance. To help a parent participate in social and meaningful activities, consider transportation options like a pre-paid taxi plan, transportation companion service, community service rides, even hiring a neighbour or family friend. Mom’s girlfriend took her out twice a week for lunch; Mom would say: ” I don’t drive anymore so at least let me pay for lunch to cover the gas.” Mom stayed connected to family and friends as long as she could pay her way when people drove her on outings or for errands. This eventually took the sting out of losing her licence and allowed her to remain independent. Best of all… it let me off the blame hook.

Do you have any experiences to share with talking to a parent living with dementia about driving?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

  • Linda
    Tue Jan 14 2020, 00:28
    Thank you for this vital information. I want my adult children to have this information so that when they start seeing the signs of dementia with either myself or their father, I want them to use this information as the guideline for decision making purposes. Thank you once again -
  • barbara
    Tue Jan 14 2020, 17:42
    Our dad was diagnosed w/Parkinsons Disease in his mid 80's. My sisters, brother , & myself had to comfort him about his drivers license being revoked. It wasn't that dad had dimensia @ that time . He failed a medical test which is devised to see how his reaction time was w/regards to his driving.