Driving is one of the most independent aspects of our lives. It allows us to be able to get where we want, when we want, without having to rely on anyone else. One important thing to remember is that someone with the early stages of dementia can often function very independently. Many people with dementia continue to live successfully alone for a portion of their disease. However, as the disease progresses, it begins to affect our abilities to complete everyday tasks such as driving. Deciding when to stop driving can be a challenging topic to both understand and discuss.
It is crucial that safety always comes first. If you notice yourself or your loved one with dementia exhibiting unsafe signs while driving, it may be time to have a conversation. Some signs might include becoming angrier and more confused while driving, drifting lanes, hitting curbs, making errors at intersections, inability to control speed, getting lost going to familiar places, and more.
Some individuals with dementia recognize safety concerns and decide to stop driving on their own with no difficulty or intervention. However, it does not always go this smoothly, and it is sometimes necessary to have the challenging talk with your loved one. To start the conversation off on the right foot, it might be helpful to start with complimenting the person on something else in their life that is going well and try to keep the conversation positive and supportive.
If the conversation begins to go south, continue to be patient, empathetic, and convey that you understand their concerns and resistance. It may be beneficial to get a third party involved such as a close friend, other family member, or even a physician to ask that they stop driving. You might also consider reducing the person’s need to drive by having services like groceries, prescriptions, and meals delivered to their home. Dementia can affect someone’s ability to make good judgments and control their emotions, so do not take things personally. Understand that talking about driving once may not “solve” the problem.
If the unsafe driving behavior continues and the person can no longer understand the safety concerns, there are other creative ways to keep your loved one safe and off the road. If it comes to this point, you might consider using a therapeutic fib that the car is “in the shop,” or another creative way to keep them from driving. There are many other transportation options in our community.
Before any of this, if you or your loved one are in the early stages of dementia, please ensure that you or your loved one’s wishes are known for the future. Ask, “When the time comes when it is unsafe for you to drive, how do you want me to handle it?” Including the person in the conversation about their own abilities and decisions can make all the difference. Planning ahead for difficult situations like this can save you and your family lots of trouble in the future.
Remember that people with dementia may not be able to understand or make sense of the fact that they should no longer drive when it becomes unsafe. Always address and validate the emotion the person is feeling and be sympathetic as you bring up this potentially sensitive subject.