by Amy Natt, MS, CMC, CSA
Q: My husband recently received a dementia diagnosis. He has gotten lost a couple of times but can usually ask for help and find his way home. He does not want to give up his driver’s license, but our daughter has expressed some concerns for his safety. How do we know when it’s time to take away the keys?
A: This is a topic that has received more attention as people are living longer and the number of people diagnosed with some form of dementia has increased. The question of safety is typically stated, just as your question asks, “Is he safe driving?” The other side of that coin is, “Is everybody else on the road safe with him driving?” It is important to look at both perspectives. He can still drive, but should he? Would you be comfortable letting him drive your grandchildren around town? What risks are presented to the driver, passenger and others on the road? If there is an accident, what is the potential liability or consequences involved? If you can start answering some of these questions, it will help you determine if a change is needed.
Some people decide they are no longer comfortable driving, especially in congested areas or unfamiliar places. Others hold on to the keys for dear life. Those that are resistant to giving up the keys may require professional intervention or assessment to help in that decision. You can begin by talking to your primary care physician and document concerns or incidents that occur.
There are also people who specialize in driver evaluation. Aging in general and other changes to the brain can impact reaction time, processing time, vision, information recall and memory. The extent to which those things impact safety should be evaluated. Occupational therapists are one resource, and there are also independent driver evaluation programs. You can ask for resources in your local area at a hospital, department of aging, rehabilitation center, or ask a care manager.
Another resource is the N.C. Department of Transportation Medical Review Program. You can request a medical evaluation. The review unit gathers and evaluates medical information of drivers who have medical conditions that could affect safety on the state’s roads. A team of licensed physicians and nurses conducts thorough reviews of medical records and statements in conjunction with driving records. Then, they provide a decision as to what, if any, restrictions should be placed on a driver’s license. The goal of the Medical Review Program is to help protect highway safety without causing unnecessary hardship on drivers. For more information, call 919-861-3809.
Keep in mind that dementia is just one of many diagnoses that might interfere with a person’s ability to drive. Medications can also play a role, as well as physical mobility. There are many diagnoses that can impact driver safety. Losing the ability to drive is a direct hit to a person’s independence and that can make it a very emotionally charged topic. I recommend having alternate forms of transportation lined up, to prevent a feeling of isolation. These may include family, friends, church members, taxi services, paid caregivers, county transportation or retirement communities that offer transportation.
What are the risks? There have been documented cases of an individual or family held liable for a person driving who has a documented diagnosis that could impair the driver. If you have concerns, talk to your insurance agent, attorney or physician. If there is a significant risk, red flags or history of accidents or getting lost, then it is time to take action. If you need help addressing the topic with your loved one, seek out help from the resources listed above. It may not be easy, but it may be necessary and the best thing for all involved.
As a driver, you want to go out on top. Don’t wait for an accident to take away the keys. Help preserve a person’s dignity by providing self-initiated alternatives. Consider some of these online resources for advice as well:
- The Hartford offers a helpful guide to having driving conversations: www.thehartford.com/sites/the_hartford/files/we-need-to-talk-2012.pdf
- AARP offers driver safety courses and warning signs to look for at: www.aarp.org/home-garden/transportation/info-05-2010/Warning_Signs_Stopping.html and www.aarp.org/ws/EO/driver-safety-programs.html
Readers may send questions to Natt, an Aging Life Care ProfessionalTM, certified senior advisor and CEO of Aging Outreach Services. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.