Welcome to This is Getting Old: Moving Towards an Age-Friendly World, I’m your host Melissa Batchelor, and today I’ll be talking to you about Alzheimer’s Disease and Driving: Five Signs that It’s Time to Take the Keys.
There may come a time when you realize that your parent, spouse, or loved one cannot drive safely anymore. The tricky part is this delicate balance between allowing them to keep driving and knowing when to take the keys.
In the early phase of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, many people may be able to continue driving familiar routes, say back and forth, to the grocery store or the bank. For most “experienced drivers,” driving is a skill so well learned that it is partly “automatic.” The problem will come in when the driver needs to make a quick decision to avoid an unexpected hazard or situation. A common sign that a person is experiencing a problem with their thinking or memory is a car accident.
Some people will recognize that they are having more difficulty and give their keys up. Other people may fight you to keep the keys. If that’s the situation you find yourself, as a caregiver, here are some things to have evaluated that can help you make an informed decision, rather than feeling like you’re the “bad guy.”
Here are the seven things you need to have evaluated. These things can be checked out by working with your primary care provider, seeing if there’s an occupational therapist in your area who evaluates driving skills or your local DMV.
#1: Good vision: Not only will the person need to have good vision, even if corrected by glasses. This includes not only short- and long-distance vision but also peripheral vision. If you’ve listened to my podcasts before, you’ve heard me say that by the time a person is in their 70’s or 80’s, they will normally lose 20-30 degrees of peripheral vision. Being aware of this means you’ll need to be turning your head to check both ways when driving – even if you don’t have Alzheimer’s disease.
#2: Good hearing: Hearing is also another critical aspect of driving – being able to hear car horns, approaching cars, and warning signals. Wearing your hearing aids while driving, if you need them, will be important; or having your hearing evaluated to see if you need hearing aids.
#3: Alertness to what’s going on around them: All drivers must be alert to what’s going on around them from multiple directions. Problems with memory or thinking may get upset or confused or miss things in their surroundings if they have to put all of their mental energy into looking at the road ahead.
#4: Quick reaction time: Drivers need to react quickly, break, or avoid accidents. If you notice that your loved one is slow to react, slowed down, or seems to respond to sudden changes inappropriately, it could also interfere with their ability to drive.
#5: Ability to make quick decisions: Drivers need to make quick – and appropriate – decisions quickly and calmly. Making a correct decision when confronted with a sudden change and doing so without panicking or getting upset may be another sign it’s close to time to take the keys.
I’d recommend that if you see a problem with any of these five things, get the help of a provider, driving safety school, or your local DMV. Rather than getting into a fight with your loved one, let one of these other people take on the role of the “bad guy.” This will take the pressure off of you, and they may listen better to a person in a position of authority – rather than thinking you are mean or antagonistic.
At the end of the day, the main job of anyone in a caregiving role for a loved one living with Alzheimer’s disease is to maintain the relationship and not get into a pattern of “resistance being met with resistance.”
Thanks for listening to this podcast or watching the video – I hope these five things will help you know when it’s time to get help and take the keys to keep your loved one safe – and others on the road.
I earned my Bachelor of Science in Nursing (‘96) and Master of Science in Nursing (‘00) as a Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) from the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) School of Nursing (SON). I truly enjoy working with the complex medical needs of older adults. I worked full-time for five years as FNP in geriatric primary care across many long-term care settings (skilled nursing homes, assisted living, home and office visits) then transitioned into academic nursing in 2005, joining the faculty at UNCW SON as a lecturer.
I obtained my PhD in Nursing and a post-Master’s Certificate in Nursing Education from the Medical University of South Carolina College of Nursing (2011) ) and then joined the faculty at Duke University School of Nursing as an Assistant Professor. My family moved to northern Virginia in 2015 and led to me joining the faculty at George Washington University (GW) School of Nursing in 2018 as a (tenured) Associate Professor where I am also the Director of the GW Center for Aging, Health and Humanities.
Find out more about her work HERE.