When to Talk to Seniors with Dementia About Driving

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Navigating Difficult Conversations: When to Talk About Driving with Seniors with Dementia

For many older adults, being able to drive is a symbol of freedom and independence. A senior who still has their driver’s license is less reliant on others for transport and is able to make their way around town without telling other people their plans.

However, when the symptoms of dementia worsen, driving becomes unsafe. It’s easy to get confused when on the roads at the best of times, but drivers with memory loss and declining cognitive function are a liability to other road users. These warning signs for these medical conditions should not be ignored.

Unfortunately, telling older drivers that it is no longer safe to drive is difficult. For many, it’s the first time their health conditions have really forced them to grapple with the reality of dementia. Understandably, this can elicit frustration and push-back from the most patient of people.

Risks on the Road

The early onset of dementia can be deceptively mild. Many folks feel that little has changed and that they just have brain fog from time to time. However, dementia can progress quickly and poses a real risk to road users. Age-related cognitive impairment increases the risk of collisions and may result in serious injuries due to at-fault accidents.

The road is becoming a more confusing place for drivers, too. Many older people are “digitally unprepared” for the future of driving and may struggle to operate high-tech cars. This may increase the risk of distracted driving if the person behind the wheel is confused by touch-screen consoles or assistive driving technology.

If you’re unsure of whether an elderly driver with dementia can still drive, consider working with a doctor. A doctor will assess factors like:

  • General coordination and reaction times
  • Alertness to things happening around the person
  • Mood swings or irritability
  • Difficulty processing information
  • Decision-making ability

Vision is of course an important factor and regular eye exams are important. After all, bad weather can make seeing road signs that much more difficult. Including an eye doctor in this assessment is a critical component to an overall driving assessment.

The administration of a vision test can identify potential vision problems that might include macular degeneration. Removing the car keys from an unsafe driver whose driving ability has diminished is difficult. Vision will help all participants keep an open mind regarding the person’s ability to practice safe driving.

It’s a good idea to err on the side of caution when deciding to drive. Caregivers and family members shouldn’t have to worry about the driving skills of the elderly person every time they decide to go for a spin. Instead, take a proactive approach by having a kind but clear conversation with your elderly parent about no longer driving.

Kind But Clear Conversation

Before taking away the keys, be prepared for pushback and frustration. Many senior drivers who have dementia are also dealing with depression. This can increase their irritability and mental fatigue which will make the conversation more difficult. You must guard against conflict and try to navigate the conversation slowly so folks can work through their emotions while feeling supported and cared for.

If you happen to be the child or partner of a person with dementia, do your best to speak with them at a time when you are both emotionally stable. This may mean that you have to set aside time around midday to connect with your parent or loved one when they are more alert.

Rather than beating around the bush, be clear that you need to talk about driving and dementia. This will be difficult for you both, but it’s best to enter the conversation from a clear point of understanding. Adopt a kind, empathetic approach throughout, and foreground the fact that many people with dementia have to give up driving earlier than they’d like.

Try to avoid making judgments about a person’s cognitive abilities when talking about driving. You aren’t there to “judge” their abilities and they shouldn’t be forced to feel defensive. Instead, focus on the effect that dementia may start to have on their ability to drive. This helps folks understand the importance of proactive, preventative measures when dealing with dementia and avoiding car accidents.

Be sure to navigate towards the next steps towards the end of the conversation. Folks who cannot drive may fear that they will lose contact with their friends and family. Alleviate these fears by researching things like public transportation first and reassure them that there will always be someone there to drive them when they cannot drive themselves.

Next Steps

When someone stops driving, they may feel as though their world becomes smaller. This is understandable, as driving allows many people to visit friends, shop for their own groceries, and travel. When that is taken away, many folks fear that their independence will be lost, too.

Assuage these fears by helping an aging parent with dementia find new ways to get about. Importantly, the travel solutions you find should align with the person’s current symptoms and abilities. This ensures that they feel safe when they are away from home and have appropriate oversight during their travels.

Ideally, you should strive to find a local dementia support group that can provide care and safe transportation. Many of these groups utilize mini-busses to help folks get out of the house and employ carers who can look after seniors with dementia. These groups also help seniors meet people with the same interests and perspectives. This can provide a much-needed social boost after someone gives up the keys to their car.

Eventually, you’ll need to talk about selling the car. Bear in mind that this can be a tricky, emotionally charged conversation. The best way might be to begin by finding out how involved the person with dementia would like to be. Many folks will want to play an active role in managing their assets, while others may want it taken care of for them.

You can consider donating the car, too. This can provide a much-needed positive boost to the person’s life and mental well-being. Before you give the car away, you need to ask key questions when donating a car like:

  • “Do you have the title?”
  • “Which charity means the most to you?”
  • “Can this go towards lowering your taxes?”
  • “Do you need/want the money from selling the car, instead?”

These practical considerations ensure that car owners do the right thing when selling their vehicles. Move slowly and try to find a landing place that brings the former owner happiness. This can alleviate the anxiety associated with giving up the car and help them navigate later life with greater peace of mind.

dementia and driving
Courtesy Unsplash

Final Thoughts

Driving with dementia isn’t possible for most elderly people. Even small blips in concentration can affect their driving abilities have dire results on the road. The reality is that other transportation options must be considered when attempting to have them give up the steering wheel.

However, giving up driving is an emotionally charged topic for senior parents of adult children. Navigate the conversation with grace by avoiding conflict and retaining a calm, empathetic approach throughout. This will help the person with dementia understand the decision and make it easier to consider the next steps like minibus groups and donating the vehicle to charity.

About the Author

Sam Bowman

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Sam Bowman

Sam Bowman writes about people, health, wellness, and how they merge. He enjoys getting to utilize the internet for a community without actually having to leave his house. In his spare time he likes running, reading, and combining the two in a run to his local bookstore.

Connect with Sam on LinkedIn.