by Paul Lorrah
For many older adults, driving represents freedom, social connection and an emotional attachment that’s difficult to let go of, just as it would be for anyone.
It can be subtle at first: Their parking is off kilter. Scratches from knocking over garbage cans appear on their car. They complain more often about how bad other people are driving. Friends and neighbors start to notice their driving is unsafe.
One way to determine if it’s time for the older adult in your life to stop driving is to observe them on the road. Drive behind them or ride along with them.
Driving requires the executive functioning skills of multi-tasking: operating the gas, blinkers and brakes while focusing on where you’re headed and any conversation that’s going on. It also requires rapid response times. If any of those abilities are impaired, it makes driving less safe.
Dementia adds another layer of concern
While a diagnosis of dementia does not necessarily mean someone has to stop driving, especially in the early stages, it does mean you have to be aware of certain warning signs that it’s time to stop driving:
- Coming home late or taking hours to get home from the store
- Forgetting where they park more frequently
- Becoming lost more often
- Forgetting where they’re going
With a dementia diagnosis, it’s necessary to do a driving test every six months or so.
Sometimes it’s one and done, if they don’t pass, they’re done driving. Often it’s more of a gradual kind of agreement you’re making.
They might agree to only drive during the day, when they’re most sharp, make short trips to familiar places, and stay off the freeway.
Ideally, with dementia, it’s best to be proactive early in their diagnosis and let the care recipient create a plan with you to gradually stop driving. If they’re involved in the decision-making, they’re more likely to agree to it.
The Alzheimer’s Association has a drivers contract that you can use to set parameters for driving; maybe they agree to not drive in bad weather or after dark and to call if they get lost or cannot find their car in a parking lot.
Don’t make the family the bearer of bad news but sometimes it has to be. If possible, it can be really helpful to have a doctor or some other authority figure whom they respect have that conversation for them. Sometimes a doctor will put it in writing. That way, they can be reminded it was the doctor’s recommendation and not the family’s decision.”
When it does become time for your loved one to stop driving - consider their routine and the activities they need a car for and fill the void by having a taxi, rideshare, friends or family members drive them. Otherwise, they may feel trapped at home and lose the opportunity to socialize with people at all the places they used to go—connections vital to their happiness. You want to keep them on the road, just not behind the wheel.