Q: My mother has shown signs of dementia over the last year or so. There are several issues we have concerns about but driving is our biggest worry. She is used to going out every day shopping, running errands or out to lunch with friends. She hasn’t gotten a ticket or had an accident so far. One of her neighbors was driving behind her the other day and he noticed she drifts into the other lane, doesn’t always use turn signals and stops suddenly at intersections. We don’t know how to handle this problem. We know she is going to be angry once the subject is brought up. What can we do?
A: This is a problem you need to deal with sooner rather than later. Ask yourself if you would rather deal with her anger or take the chance she gets lost, injures herself or someone else? Your mother most likely may not be at a point where she is willing to quit driving on her own, odds are she is not even aware she presents a danger every time she gets behind the wheel.
The best scenario would be to initiate a conversation with your mother about it may no longer be safe for her to drive. Assure her this does not mean she will have to give up all outside activities. If she does not resist then it is up to the family to find alternative options for her to be able to leave the home. Enlist friends, neighbors and family members who are willing and available to drive her around. Look for community resources such as volunteer drivers or paid individuals through agencies.
If this becomes more of an adversarial situation it may require more drastic measures. Schedule an appointment with her primary care physician and ask his assistance in this matter. If she doesn’t take the advice of her physician ask if the physician would be willing to make a report to the Division of Motor Vehicles stating she is unsafe to drive. The agency can then require her to take a drivers test. Individuals can also make a report to the DMV and request the information to be kept confidential. In some cases families have found they have to tell a little “fib” saying the car is in the repair shop. Furthermore, the repairs will cost more than the car is worth. Hiding the keys works for some people.
It is important to point out dementia is not the only condition which makes a person unsafe to drive. Depending upon the extent of medical conditions which include diabetes, stroke, arthritis, sleep apnea, Parkinson’s disease or other neurological diagnoses a person may not be in a position to continue driving. Anyone who has diminished eyesight (not correctible by prescription glasses), slow reaction times or reflexes, limb weakness or stiffness in the neck which makes it difficult to turn and look in both directions should be assessed for driver safety.
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Do you have a question? We encourage inquiries and comments from our readers. Please direct your correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org or Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, Inc., Age Information Department, 280 Merrimack Street, Suite 400, Lawrence, MA 01843. Joan Hatem-Roy is the Chief Executive Officer of Elder Services.