When is it time for a person living with dementia (PlwD) to quit driving? How do I convince my loved one to quit driving? What can I do to keep my loved one from driving? Why is this so difficult? These and more are all questions that care partners ask as dementia takes its toll and they can see that their loved one’s driving isn’t safe anymore, but their loved one still persists.
Chapter 49 of our book, Managing Cognitive Issues in Parkinson’s and Lewy Body Dementia, discusses this issue in depth, calling it possibly “more traumatic than asking someone else to handle financial decisions or even transitioning into assisted living.” Highlights from that chapter include:
Deciding that the time to stop driving has come is a very adult decision. It requires that a person can still see past the present, recognize cause and effect and deal with the emotions aroused by the thought of losing one’s freedom to drive.
Discuss this issue early in the journey, before the dementia has eroded the above skills. Don’t wait for others to be concerned, or even for a dementia diagnosis. If you do this as soon as you know there is even the possibility of dementia in your future, you both can be more objective.
Agree upon some red flags that warn that driving has become unsafe and discuss what you will do when you begin to see them. Set up a routine of reviewing the red flags regularly. It is often easier with couples to review the driving of both couples…this takes the sting out of the exercise and it becomes “one more way we take care of ourselves.”
Red flags: Both the PlwD (or even a person at risk for dementia) and their care partner should answer the following questions:
Does the person:
Avoid driving with grandchildren in the car?
Drive fewer miles than s/he used to?
Avoid driving at night, or in the rain, or in busy traffic, or in other situations that feel less safe?
Get mad at other drivers easily, and do things like honk the horn, gesture or drive close to them?
Has the person:
Been the driver in an auto accident in the last three years?
Received a ticket for a traffic violation like speeding or running a red light in the last three years?
Any “yes” answers mean that driving may have become unsafe. The more yeses, the more unsafe it probably is. It is human nature to be biased towards preserving one's driving rights, and so the care partner's answers should usually carry more weight. This is especially so as the PlwD loses the ability to think clearly, which will increase the bias.
The sad fact is that if you wait until driving has truly become unsafe, the PlwD may not remember the prior discussion about red flags. Stuck in the present, they may see only the immediate rewards of being free to drive, but not be able to comprehend what might happen. “Safe driving” will have little meaning and a decision to quit will seem irrational.
Another sad fact is that families often choose to put off this difficult decision until something happens and someone other than the care partner can be the “bad guy” who insists that the driving must end. Since no one can know if the precipitating event will be a mild fender-bender or a more serious accident, this isn’t a very safe choice.
And so what can you do to help your loved one make this decision in the least painful way? Well, that early discussion and the regular review of red flags really do help. The memory of these remains in the person’s subconscious even when they don’t actively remember. (That’s one difference between LBD* and Alzheimer’s. With LBD, the information does get stored in one’s long term memory. The person just has more and more difficulty retrieving it.) This helps to soften the blow and makes it more their own decision.
For more discussion about helping a PlwD quit driving, see next week’s blog.
LBD: Lewy body dementia
PlwD: person living with dementia
PlwLBD: person living with LBD
DLB: dementia with Lewy bodies
PDD: Parkinson's disease with dementia
MCI: mild cognitive impairment
MCI-LB: the form of MCI that precedes LBD
BPSD: behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia
For information about Lewy body disorders, read our books:
A Caregivers’ Guide to Lewy Body Dementia
Managing Cognitive Issues in Parkinson's and Lewy Body Dementia
Helen and James Whitworth are not doctors. As informed caregivers, they share the information here for educational purposes only. It should never be used instead of a physician's advice.