Taking Away the Car Keys

My Father is 87 years old and experiencing memory problems. We are worried about his driving, as he has had some minor accidents, and even got a ticket the other day for speeding through a stop sign. How do we know when it is time to stop driving?

Often, the first serious conflict when caring for someone with dementia involves driving the car. A driver’s license is not automatically revoked when a dementia diagnosis occurs. As a result, the agonizing decision of when (and how) to take away driving privileges is left to the family.

Even in the earliest stages, individuals with dementia display poor judgment. They ignore stop signs, become distracted by emergency vehicles or misinterpret distances when parking. Even worse, they may become lost, and wander the streets for hours before eventually finding their way home. These individuals not only risk injuring themselves but also put many others at risk in their path.

What is a family to do?
Just as every personality is different, there are many different approaches to removing driving privileges and assuring that everyone remains safe. Early in the disease process, initiate casual conversation about driving and discuss when it may have to stop. In doing so, you have the opportunity to gage the individual’s reaction to the idea. Reassure your family member that there will be alternate plans for transportation, and life will continue without a car.

Understand that the loss of driving can be devastating, as it now means that the individual must depend on others to carry out daily activity. It often signals the ultimate loss of independence. Be compassionate in your conversation. The more you discuss the subject, the more the seed will be planted. Check out the Grand Driver program at www.AAMVA.org/GrandDriver for information on driving safety and when to stop.

If conversation does not work, consider the following options:
1. Ask the doctor to write a prescription that your family member should limit or stop driving entirely. Make this a private request, either in writing or out of earshot of the person with dementia. Some individuals will follow doctor’s orders more readily than family members.
2. Put the blame on the insurance company, stating that rates will increase and the cost of driving will become unmanageable. For some individuals, money serves as good leverage.
3. Enlist the services of a Certified Driving Rehabilitation Specialist to evaluate the individual’s driving. The Driving Specialist will come to the house and determine if your loved one can continue driving safely. Contact www.aded.net to find a driving specialist in your area.
4. Report an impaired driver to the DMV. This process varies from state to state and can be done anonymously. The DMV may require a written test, road test, or vision test for the individual to continue driving. They have the authority to issue a restricted license or to revoke the driver’s license entirely. If this happens, be sure to replace with an official ID card.
5. Make the keys disappear. If the keys are lost, the individual cannot drive the car.
6. If two individuals are sharing the vehicle, consider disabling the car with a Kill Switch. This switch can be installed below the steering wheel and allow the caregiver to disable the car whenever he or she is not driving. The cost is about $40, and can be installed by your mechanic.
7. Send the car to the auto shop for repairs. If the vehicle remains at the shop for an extended period of time, out of sight is often out of mind.
8. Donate the car to a needy grandchild or a favorite charity.
9. Finally, it is important that the individual with dementia does not become isolated in his home. Create a plan for transportation. Enlist family and friends to help drive, or utilize more formal options such as paid companions or senior transportation services in your community.