When is It Time to Stop Driving After a Dementia or Alzheimer’s Diagnosis?

DISTRESSED VINTAGE STEERING WHEEL

A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia doesn’t necessarily mean your family member needs to give up the keys right away; however, the time will inevitably come when they are no longer safe to be on the road. Key symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia include greater levels of confusion and progressive loss of fine motor skills. As a concerned spouse or child, you may need to sit your loved one down and have a difficult conversation about giving up driving in order to keep them safe, along with other drivers on the road!

Start Planning Early

Before the time comes to have that tough conversation, begin planning how to make the transition from driver to passenger easier. Start by exploring alternative transportation options. Your loved one may still need or want to go to the grocery store, the doctor’s office, and to the homes of their children. Can a spouse or child be available to drive them?

While your loved one is still driving, help increase their safety. Make sure they have a phone charger in their car (and a cell phone with pre-programmed numbers) in case they get confused or lost. You may also want to consider adding a GPS monitor to the car or paying for an OnStar subscription so they can be found if they get lost.

Monitor Your Loved One for Unsafe Driving

Make an effort to ride along with your loved one on a regular basis after a dementia diagnosis to ensure that they are safe on the road. It is probably time for them to give up their keys if you start to notice these unsafe driving behaviors:

  • Forgets how to get to familiar places
  • Forgets traffic rules/doesn’t follow traffic signs
  • Makes poor traffic decisions
  • Slow response times (such as when changing lanes or hitting the brakes)
  • Confuses the brake and gas pedals
  • Gets upset or frustrated while driving
  • Forgets destination

How to Have “The Conversation”

If you feel that your family member can no longer drive safely, then it is time to have “the conversation.” It will probably be a difficult experience so practice what you want to say and recruit family members to join you to show unity. Here are a few tips to make this unpleasant conversation a little easier:

Show Empathy

Asking your spouse, parent, or loved one to give up driving is a big deal to them. In many ways you are asking them to give up their freedom. Some people will take this personally. Try to understand how it will feel for the other person and be as kind and understanding as you can even if they get upset.

Be Firm

Showing empathy doesn’t mean that you roll over if your loved one gets upset or refuses to stop driving. Stand firm. Use evidence to support your claim. Reinforce your family member’s diagnosis and explain how dementia or Alzheimer’s affects response time and memory. If your loved one has gotten lost or had difficulty driving recently, bring up those examples. Make sure every family member stays on message and that you show a united front. This is also a good time to show your family member the alternative transportation options you’ve already developed. This will help them see that they won’t lose their freedom or be stuck permanently at home.

Appeal to Your Loved One’s Sense of Responsibility

Make it clear to your loved one that you aren’t asking them to give up driving just to be mean. Explain that they have a responsibility to stop driving to protect themselves and to protect other drivers on the road. If you have to, use an emotional plea, like, “Would you want your granddaughter driving on the highway next to someone with dementia who keeps confusing the gas and brake pedals?” Many people will respond when you help them understand that this decision is about more than themselves.

Be Prepared to Have the Conversation Multiple Times

The nature of Alzheimer’s and dementia means that your family member may respond more emotionally than you expect. Those with dementia often exhibit less impulse control than normal, so your loved one might stubbornly refuse to give up driving or become upset. It is also likely that your family member will forget the conversation even if they agree to stop driving. They may look for their keys, demand to drive, and become upset all over again in the future. Stay firm and be calm as you repeat your argument in each instance.

Special Tips

In especially difficult cases where your loved one believes that they are safe to drive, you may need to go the extra distance to convince them to leave the car in the garage or simply take matters into your own hands if you feel they represent a true danger on the road. Here are a few special tips:

  • Ask your doctor to write a “No Driving” prescription or to speak to your family member. Often times, the opinion of an authoritative figure will trump those of adult children.
  • Hide the car keys. If you are worried about your family member trying to drive themselves, don’t make the car keys easily accessible. Lock or hide them away. Steering the conversation away from driving when your loved one notices missing keys can help shift their focus.
  • Take away the car. This is a drastic measure, but it will ensure your loved one doesn’t injure themselves or others.

If you need help figuring out how to have the difficult driving conversation, consider attending Sunshine Care’s free monthly Support Group for Caregivers & Families. These support groups are the perfect place to ask other families how they dealt with this difficult issue and to get compassionate support from others who understand exactly what you are going through.



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