How Does Alzheimer's Disease Affect Driving?
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2019 | Last updated: August 2021
Giving up driving privileges is something no one loves doing, but when a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, this is something they have to think about in a serious, fairly timely way. Even with no apparent memory loss or cognitive impairment, an individual with Alzheimer’s disease may have slowed reflexes or responses, which makes them a danger to themselves and others. Reaction time naturally slows with age, but the accompanying cognitive changes of Alzheimer’s can be especially serious with driving. Once a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is made, especially if it’s in the early stages, family or caregivers should talk honestly with the patient and the doctor about whether it’s safe to drive, and be on the lookout for certain things that may signal that it’s time for the person to stop driving.
Signs to watch for
There are things to watch for regarding a person with Alzheimer’s disease and their ability to drive including1,2:
- Look for any new dents or scratches in the car
- Observing if simple trips take longer than expected, which may mean the person got lost or wasn’t sure of where they were
- Observing the person drive in different kinds of weather and at different times of day
- Seeing if they hit curbs, are able to navigate intersections or stay in their lane
- Maintaining an appropriate speed
- Confusing the brake or gas
- Ability to read and understand street signs and traffic signals
All of these can help a concerned friend, family member, or caregiver create a picture of the person’s driving abilities.
Addressing the issue
Losing independence or having it curtailed – as with giving up driving – can be hard for anyone. For an individual with Alzheimer’s disease, who might be facing other restrictions or feeling like they’re losing independence or autonomy, this might be especially difficult and upsetting. They might be very resistant to the idea of giving up driving. It’s important for loved ones or caregivers to address this early on in the process and outline some alternatives to driving with the person, like nearby public transportation, rideshares, having a trusted friend or family member drive for them, and so forth. If the conversation is particularly hard to have, it might be a good idea to do it in the presence of their doctor or an authority figure that they trust.
Once the decision to stop driving is made, make sure the person has as much access to transportation as they need. If they are restricted and aren’t able to do things like go to the store when they need to or go to the doctor or to a social event, this adds to an already frustrating situation. Delivery services might be one option to minimize the need for transportation; things like prescriptions, groceries, and meals are able to be delivered.
Safety tips after deciding to stop driving
There are safety tips that should be followed, even after the decision to stop driving has been made. The person with Alzheimer’s might not remember they stopped driving, and they might try to get in the car and go somewhere. As a reminder3:
- Keep keys out of reach and out of sight; if the patient wants a set of keys, give them other ones that aren’t for the car
- Disable the vehicle so that it’s not able to be started or driven
- Sell the car, if need be or if possible
Even after the decision to stop driving has been made, even if the person did so willingly, they might still grieve their independence and miss the autonomy a vehicle gave them. This is normal, and it’s okay to comfort them. Let them know that they made the right decision and the safe decision, for themselves and others, and that you’ll help them get to where they need to be.