Hands on Wheels

“Anne” was getting worried.  Her 82 year old father had been suffering from frequent episodes of forgetfulness and had recently “misplaced” his car while at the movies.  His doctor, also concerned about these changes, had gently broached the subject of whether it might be time to stop driving.  Her dad, fiercely independent, had balked at this suggestion and continued to drive frequently around the city.  Anne was at a loss…she was terrified that something might happen to her dad (or someone else) while he was behind the wheel, but she was also uncomfortable talking with him about her concerns.

DEMENTIA: WARNING SIGNS

According to the American Academy of Neurology, people with mild dementia should strongly consider stopping driving. The following are some of the warning signs to watch for if you are concerned about an older driver:

  • Becomes lost on a familiar route.
  • Has accidents, near misses, or “fender-benders”.
  • Drives too slowly or stops in traffic for no apparent reason.
  • Avoids certain driving situations, such as driving at night or in the rain.
  • Has difficulty seeing pedestrians, objects or other vehicles.
  • Signals incorrectly and/or parks inappropriately.
  • Is increasingly nervous or irritated when driving.

HAVING THE CONVERSATION

Although some people are aware that they are having increasing difficulty with driving and decide to stop on their own, many consider the prospect of losing their driving privileges (and the accompanying loss of independence) extremely upsetting.  Encourage the person to talk about what this loss will mean to them and try to reach an agreement regarding which types of driving behavior would signal the need to stop driving.

WHAT ABOUT THE DOCTOR?

In some states, such as California, physicians are required by law to notify the DMV of any patient diagnosed with dementia.  Depending on the severity of the dementia, the person may then be required to take a behind-the-wheel driving test.  In most cases, those individuals diagnosed with moderate or severe dementia will have their licenses automatically revoked.

IF ALL ELSE FAILS?

In a perfect world, anyone who has their license revoked due to dementia would automatically stop driving.  Unfortunately, many people with dementia will continue to insist that they are safe to drive; others may simply forget that they are not supposed to drive and repeatedly get back behind the wheel.  Should this be the case, you may need to prevent access to the car by disabling the car, selling the car or moving the vehicle out of sight.

SAFETY FIRST

In the end, balancing safety with the person’s desire to drive can be extremely stressful and emotionally exhausting.  When initiating the conversation, be prepared for the person to become angry with you due to memory and insight issues related to dementia. Enlist the support of family, friends and healthcare professionals when making and implementing difficult decisions about driving.  Finally, remind yourself throughout this difficult process that you are doing what is best for the person you love.