Hitting the Brakes

When is it time to stop driving?

During one of our family’s weekly visits with my mother-in-law, I was following her as she drove herself to the doctor in her purple Jeep. Suddenly, I watched her turn left on a one-way street into oncoming traffic. Thankfully, she quickly corrected course without an accident.

On other visits, I noticed telltale patches of purple paint on the side of her garage. Her husband had recently passed away. We figured she was out of practice with the car because he usually drove.

But then, something happened that forced the issue of her driving. After a fun day of shopping, I headed home, and she drove back to her house. A half-hour later, we got a phone call: “I can’t figure out where I am,” she told her son. “Well, what do you see?” he asked. “A lot of cows,” she answered.

It scared us to think this brilliant retired teacher and entrepreneur could no longer find her way home from the mall. We knew driving wasn’t safe for her anymore, but how could we broach the subject with such a proud, strong-willed woman? 

We went through two rounds of driving tests, asked the doctor to confiscate her license, and endured a lot of heartache before we found a solution that worked: The handyman disabled her car battery. As her Alzheimer’s disease progressed, my mother-in-law stopped asking about her beloved purple Jeep.

Navigating the discussion

It turns out, we weren’t the only ones to face this gut-wrenching crossroads. Taking away the keys is a difficult subject for many older adults and their families. Sometimes, a decline in driving is a normal part of aging, as senses and reaction times decrease. Other times, driving problems can be an ominous harbinger of oncoming dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Whatever the reason, for many people, giving up a driver’s license can feel like abandoning their independence. In our society, driving is a powerful symbol of freedom. On top of that, navigating life without a car is challenging in most towns, which are not designed around walking or public transit.

Yet, there is a way to approach this delicate subject with compassion and diplomacy, says counselor Stephanie Gerberding, a licensed clinical social worker at NorthShore University HealthSystem. “These are really difficult dynamics for both seniors and their adult children to navigate,” she says.

Gerberding offers her tips for better communication on this tough topic:

  • Plan. Be thoughtful about how you approach the discussion. Be prepared for multiple conversations.
  • Listen. Your loved one has fears and worries. Take the time to really hear and address them.
  • Empathize. Acknowledge the loss. Try saying: “I hear you. I know this is a huge loss. I know you value your independence. I’ll be here for you through all of it.”
  • Be diplomatic. Avoid pointing out their physical or mental changes. 
  • Don’t shame. Avoid guilt and shame because it can cause people to shut down. Compassion, respect, and diplomacy will help your loved one really hear what you’re saying. 

Taking the keys

For people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, the issues are even more complex, says Melissa Tucker, director of family services for the Alzheimer’s Association Illinois Chapter. Often, they are not aware that they have a memory problem, so they will persist in unsafe driving. 

It may help to let the family doctor be the authority on driving. The doctor may suggest a driving evaluation test. 

Burr Ridge resident Bob Somrek, 73, remembers when his late wife Diana took the driving test. She was 69 at the time. “It wasn’t our car, and it sat up higher on the road,” he says. “The car confused her, and she didn’t pass.” So Somrek took over the driving duties. He told her, “Hop in. I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”

But even if the person loses their license, they may fixate on the car or forget that they are not supposed to drive. In that case, what Tucker calls a “therapeutic fib” can be useful. Some families tell their loved one they took the car to the shop or a grandchild borrowed it. Others change the car locks or disable it.

Be prepared for surprises along the way. Tucker says it’s not uncommon for a person with Alzheimer’s disease to get confused and call the police, thinking someone stole their car. 

If you notice your loved one becoming more irritable, depressed, or isolated after losing their driving privileges, check in with their doctor or a counselor, Gerberding says. 

Support groups can be a big help for families who encounter resistance when they tell their loved one to stop driving. Somrek, who is training to become a Chicago-area Alzheimer’s Association volunteer, says support groups help people realize they don’t have to go through it alone. 

Though taking the keys isn’t enjoyable, it’s often necessary, especially if your loved one has dementia. “I always stress: You’re not doing this to them, the disease is doing it,” Tucker says. “You’re keeping them safe while the disease progresses.” 

That’s what I told myself as I watched my mother-in-law sit inside her purple Jeep and try the ignition, over and over. “Dorothy,” I said. “Let’s take my car today.”


Stop Signs

If you see your loved one exhibiting these behaviors, it may be time for them to get off the road:

  • Confusing the gas and brake pedals.
  • Losing their way home from familiar places or taking a long time to return home.
  • Forgetting where they parked.
  • Denting the car or having accidents.
  • Becoming more irritable or angry about the process of driving.


Alzheimer’s Association Illinois Chapter

Support groups and information alz.org/illinois. 24/7 helpline, 800-272-3900

NorthShore University HealthSystem

Senior driving evaluations northshore.org/physical-medicine-rehabilitation/our-programs/driving/, 847-570-1260