In My Opinion: Driving & Dementia

Lou-Ellen Barkan
President & CEO

Watching a person with dementia gradually lose independence is very difficult, not just for that individual but for the caregivers as well. Nowhere is this more evident than with driving. But, driving with dementia can have deadly consequences.

Too many times, I have met with someone concerned about a parent, spouse or partner and who, even after a diagnosis, is afraid to take away the car keys. When we explain the risks, family members push back. Here is some of what we hear:

“But I can’t take the car away. How will Mom get around?”
“It’s the only independent thing Dad still can do. It will break his heart.”
“Joe only drives in our neighborhood, so there is no danger that he will get lost.”
“Alice never drives alone. One of us is always with her.”

But getting lost should be the least of your worries and a family member’s presence in the car provides no protection against accidents. A person with dementia has slower reaction time, is easily distracted and is less likely to recover if a mistake is made. In those few seconds of confusion, the driver could easily harm not only himself or herself, but also other motorists or pedestrians, including innocent children. Families must understand the risks. It’s hard, but they need to have that difficult conversation. Every day people with dementia are behind the wheel, they pose a grave risk to themselves and others.

Consider the worst-case scenario. Mom has been driving herself to the local stores for years. She knows the neighborhood well. But one day, when she least expects it, a dog runs into the road and a small child follows. Mom doesn’t pick up on this in time. The outcome could be tragic.

Too many times, after a close call like this one, the family returns to CaringKind to discuss how to take the keys away and how to find alternative ways for Mom and Dad to get around. Our social workers are experienced at listening. They understand the challenges of taking away the keys. They will help you to protect your family from a disaster that is easily avoided.

California restricts individuals with a dementia diagnosis from driving. These sensible restrictions require families and physicians to take the license and the keys away from individuals immediately after they are diagnosed – no questions asked. Good for them!

If you are the caregiver or the decision maker for someone with a dementia diagnosis, I urge you to call our 24-hour Helpline at 646-744-2900 and discuss how to best approach this subject with your family member or friend to make the transition as easy as possible. The time you take today may avert a tragedy tomorrow.

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