As we age, many things begin to affect our ability to drive. From vision and reflexes to the simple flexibility needed to check blind spots over our shoulder. Those with dementia face extra challenges as they drive, as they may forget the key skills and road rules that allow them to drive safely.

If your parent or loved one has dementia, you may be afraid that they have lost their ability to drive safely and are putting themselves, and others on the roadway, in danger. The unfortunate reality is that anyone with dementia will eventually give up driving. But it’s difficult to make the call as to when exactly this needs to happen. You know you’re limiting your loved one’s freedom and you don’t want to do that lightly.

Luckily, there are signs you can look for to help gauge how safe your parent is behind the wheel and experts you can turn to who can determine how much your parent’s dementia may be impeding their driving ability, as well as help you to figure out the best way to intervene.  

Signs Your Parent May No Longer Be Safe to Drive

Allowing your parent to drive you around every once in a while is a good first step in assessing their ability. According to The Alzheimer’s Association, these are common signs that someone with dementia may no longer be able to drive safely:

  • Losing their way when heading to familiar places
  • Driving too slow or too fast
  • Not noticing or not obeying traffic signs
  • Forgetting where they are going
  • Hitting curbs, or other things
  • Not changing lanes when they need to
  • Becoming confused while driving
  • Becoming angry while driving
  • Confusing the brake and gas petals
  • Confusing left and right
  • Making mistakes at intersections

Your parent may stop giving you the opportunity to observe their driving, especially if they know they are no longer able to drive safely. Signs they may be driving unsafely when you are not around include:

  • New scratches and dents on the car
  • Arriving uncharacteristically late
  • Refusing to drive at night (potential vision problems)
  • Refusing to drive at other times (potential concern about medication effects)
  • Frequently getting lost, especially when driving to familiar places
  • Accepting fewer invitations and missing appointments

Even if your parent is showing some of these signs, it may be hard to draw a clear line between acceptable ability and dangerous driving, particularly if your parent seems comfortable driving most of the time but occasionally makes serious mistakes. You can turn to a few tools to help you monitor and assess your parent and to make a better decision about their driving.

Tools to Assess Your Parent’s Driving

Monitoring your parent’s driving through GPS can help you determine if they are getting lost, making dangerous decisions, or driving too quickly or slowly. It’s best to introduce GPS monitoring with your parent’s permission and reassure them that you are worried about their safety—not trying to take away their freedom.

Licensed officials, occupational therapists and other professionals may be able to assess your parent and offer insight on their driving habits and other related skills. Get them assessed on their worst day— after all, it only takes one bad day to get into a serious accident. From then, it’s best to get your parent assessed every six months.

Programs such as Driving to Independence are an excellent resource for assessing your loved one on the road and helping to plan out safe driving routes, including avoiding dangerous turns and not driving when traffic is busy and more confusing. They can help senior drivers who are still safe to drive stay up to date on rules of the road, or help you decide whether your parent should hand over their keys and look at alternative transportation.

If Your Parent Refuses to Give Up Their License

Unfortunately, even mild dementia is likely to force your parent to stop driving. Those with dementia are 88 percent more likely to fail a driving test than those without.

Understandably, your loved one will be concerned about giving up their license, even if a professional recommends it. Remember that dementia can impair their judgment but that their concerns and feelings are still important. Reassure your parent by letting them know you care about them and their safety, and help them make new plans for their transportation that are simple and don’t make them feel like a burden on other people.

If you’re having trouble speaking to your parent on your own, seek outside input from other friends and family, as well as their family doctor, on ways to convince your parent that a new method of transportation is best for them. Also remind your loved one that giving up driving won’t prevent them from enjoying the activities and gatherings that they enjoy now. In fact, if your parent is already turning down invitations over driving, or arriving late to their appointments, deciding to use a ride service may actually give them some freedom back.

It is important to be as supportive as possible and speak to your parent about their driving ability without sounding condescending or critical. Whether they realize their declining skills on the road or not, losing the sense of independence that comes with driving is very challenging to come to terms with and they need your support, patience, and understanding throughout the transition.

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