by Amy Natt, MS, CMC, CSA

Q: My mother has been having problems with her memory for a couple of years. She was recently diagnosed with dementia and the doctor mentioned that if she is in an accident, her diagnosis could be a reason someone could file a law suit against her. Should we stop her from driving?

A: Driving and dementia do not typically mix well, especially as a person’s disease progresses. Often in the early stages, people continue to drive, especially short distances and to familiar places. Family members often support this because it is much easier than taking the keys away or accepting the reality that change is coming. Driving is strongly linked to feelings of independence, so taking it away means other transportation options must be made available. 

So why is there an increased risk of accidents in people living with dementia? While there are many causes of dementia, the majority result in changes to the brain, specifically short term memory, visual perception, judgement, processing information and reaction times. Aging alone can have an impact on our ability to react quickly; when we couple this with short term memory loss or changes in visual perception, it can lead to disasters behind the wheel. 

Many older adults will approach the issue as a personal challenge, “I can still do this,” when in reality it is equally about keeping the other people on the road safe as it is about keeping oneself safe behind the wheel. The National Alzheimer’s Association gives these signs of unsafe driving:

  • Forgetting how to locate familiar places
  • Failing to observe traffic signs
  • Making slow or poor decisions in traffic
  • Driving at an inappropriate speed
  • Becoming angry or confused while driving
  • Hitting curbs
  • Using poor lane control
  • Making errors at intersections
  • Confusing the brake and gas pedals
  • Returning from a routine drive later than usual
  • Forgetting the destination you are driving to during the trip

If you are starting to notice these signs in your mother’s driving, it is time to take action. Driver safety and assessment programs for older adults may be a good starting point. Occupational therapists may offer these programs, as well as organizations like AARP. 

It can be considered negligent if you know someone has a diagnosis that impairs driving and allow the person to get behind the wheel. There have been several cases that have gone to court involving driving and dementia. In some cases, individuals, family members and medical providers have been held accountable. You should speak with your physician, attorney and possibly insurance agent about this risk. 

If it is time to consider taking the keys, the best approach is to have a direct conversation and to have a plan in place. Some families use written contracts so that the person with dementia can go back and read the agreement to stop driving. Another option is to contact the state medical review board at the DMV; they have a process to revoke a license based on medical issues. Whatever course of action you take, action is important; encourage the driver to go out on top and not wait until an accident occurs. 

Be prepared by writing down all the other transportation options available. These may include family and friends who can provide transportation. They may also include public or county transportation, taxi or ride share services or hiring a caregiver to provide rides as needed. The goal is to foster as much independence as possible, while keeping everyone on the road safe. 

Readers may send questions to Amy Natt, an Aging Life Care ProfessionalTM, certified senior advisor and CEO of Aging Outreach Services. She can be reached at amyn@agingoutreachservices.com.