Knowing when to take away the driver’s key

Posted July 13, 2012, at 8:32 a.m.

The lure of the open road is hard to deny, not to mention the independence that goes along with hitting the streets. But what happens when getting behind the wheel is no longer an issue of personal freedom but of personal safety? And what about the safety of other motorists? How do you talk to a loved one about this very real problem?

These are the questions that plague adult children and families when safe driving becomes troublesome for an elder. Sometimes these driving difficulties can be the first sign of dementia.

People may get lost while going somewhere familiar, like the same grocery store that has been patronized for years. Or they are employing unsafe driving practices, such as tailgating and not using turn signals. This is usually seen by the family as a sign that something needs to be done sooner rather than later.

But how to approach the subject with an independent loved one who most likely is unaware of the hazards or is unwilling to discuss them?

Well, it can be hard to judge the appropriate time to have the conversation. And for many adult children, this is a new role. They have never been in a position of telling their parents what to do, yet there is an inherent responsibility resting on their shoulders to protect the parent and others who may be in harm’s way.

The challenge, then, is to preserve a person’s sense of independence for as long as possible, while simultaneously protect-ing the safety of that of those around them.

Being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another kind of dementia will not automatically get a person’s license pulled, nor should it. However, since it is often difficult to determine when someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia becomes a danger on the road, it is up to the family and the person’s health care provider to start the conversation and in some cases make the decision to end the person’s driving.

For example, a person’s attention span, distance perception, or the ability to process information can make it difficult to respond safely in potentially hazardous driving situations.

Other warning signs of driving problems are listed on www.thehartford.com/alzheimers and include:

• Riding the brake;

• Easily distracted while driving;

• Other drivers often honk horns;

• Hitting curbs;

• Scrapes or dents on the car, mailbox or garage;

• Increased agitation or irritation when driving;

• Uses copilot;

• Near misses or car accident;

• Confusion at exits and getting lost in familiar places;

• Confusing the gas and brake pedals.

The information at www.thehartford.com/alzheimers is readable, comprehensive, and a good resource for anyone facing this issue. Remember, as hard as it is, regularity and seriousness of unsafe driving incidents is a red flag and that several small incidents or a major incident may signal that the time has come to take action and get the person off the road. Have alternate transportation options in place for the senior if possible so that any weekly routine, while still significantly changed, won’t be completely stopped.

While many seniors recognize problems that they may have with driving and make the decision themselves to limit their time behind the road, such as curtailing night driving, those with dementia may be unable to recognize the changes and consequently are unable to respond to their decreased skill level.

As with everything in life, driving ability is very individualized, but as we age, our skill level does tend to deteriorate, and while some people drive into their 90s, others may be unable to stay behind the wheel.

More information can be found at www.aarp.org on how to talk with a loved one about their driving.

Carol Higgins Taylor is director of communications at Eastern Area Agency on Aging. For information on EAAA, call (207) 941-2865, toll-free (800) 432-7812, e-mail info@eaaa.org or log onto EAAA.org.

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