How to Tell a Loved One When It’s Time to Give Up the Keys

Advice for telling family members when it's time to stop driving

There are several skills necessary for “safe driving.” These include a good memory, sequencing skills Driving blogand the ability to dual task, just to name a few. Unfortunately, these cognitive abilities are also the ones most affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias.

Before deciding if a person is no longer a safe driver, it’s important to watch for some of the following signs:

  • Difficulty navigating familiar places, changing lanes, or making turns
  • Slowing down driving speed dramatically when having a conversation
  • Confusing the brake and gas pedals
  • Failing to observe traffic signals

If you are concerned about any of these signs, the first step is to have a conversation with your loved one. For many families, there can be a reluctance to discuss driving privileges, sometimes out of fear of upsetting the person. There are also studies that indicate that a loss of a driver’s license can cause depression or take away a person’s independence, requiring arrangements to be made for caretaking. Despite reluctance or fears, it’s best to have the conversation as early as possible in order to avoid car accidents or other health risks.

Before you have this conversation, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who should be the messenger?
  • When is a good time of day and location to talk?
  • Do you have the person’s best interest in mind?

When you decide when to speak with the person, keep the conversation simple, short and direct, focusing on a few points at a time. If the person is experiencing cognitive changes, writing things down and having continued dialogue over a period of time can be helpful. Be prepared for anger or denial, or for the person to bring up his or her past good driving record. Acknowledge the pain of this change in a genuine manner, but always return to the need to stop driving. Most importantly, remain calm, patient and work to avoid arguments.

If your loved one refuses to stop driving, or the conversation does not go well, there are further options that can be taken:

  • Have a clinician provide written directives to give up keys.
  • Ask that a driving test and evaluation be conducted.
  • Disable or sell the vehicle.

Once the decision has been reached to cease driving, it’s best to start the process gradually by having the person travel shorter distances or sticking to familiar roads. Arrangements should also be made for alternate sources of transportation, such as family members providing rides or running errands on behalf of the person, or taking the bus. Remember, while this process may be difficult, it is an important conversation to have in order to ensure a loved one’s safety and health, as well as the safety and health of the people around them.

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MADC logoThe Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center (MADC) was established at the University of Michigan Health System, through affiliation with the Department of Neurology and aims to conduct and promote research on Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders; ensure state-of-the-art care for individuals experiencing cognitive impairment or dementia; and enhance the public’s and health professionals’ understanding of dementia through education and outreach efforts. The infrastructure of the Center stems from a 20 year history as an NIH-funded Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.