Caregiver's Home Companion

Posted June 30, 2006

Ask An Expert

Elderly Safety: When to Hang Up the Car Keys

Q. Should an Alzheimer's patient still drive, and if yes, when and what are the warning signs that they should stop? Thank you.

Susan H., Jacksonville, NC.

A. The frustrating thing is that -- just like everything else having to do with Alzheimer's -- there are no hard and fast rules about driving. Most of the experts say that someone in the early stages may still be able to drive safely. Others have never been safe behind the wheel.

In general, I'd tend to agree with the experts that some folks in the early stages can probably continue to drive safely for a while. The problem is that most people aren't brought to the doctor until symptoms are quite troubling. By the time a physician diagnoses "probable Alzheimer's," many patients already have significant cognitive changes. For them, driving is dangerous to themselves and others, even though they have just been diagnosed.

Remember that most accidents happen within a mile or two of home, so driving only short distances does not necessarily make driving safe. If you're not ready to take the keys away on the basis of a diagnosis alone, look for these signs (each one is a reason to start looking for alternate means of transportation):

The driver:

1. Also has diabetes, Parkinson's, or another debilitating illness

2. Cannot twist to look over both shoulders

3. Has gotten lost or disoriented at least once

4. Has poor vision or hearing

5. Easily becomes nervous or anxious

6. Misses signs and cuts corners

7. Drives too slowly

8. Has mistaken the gas pedal for the brake

9. Has had recent "fender benders" or collisions with the garage

10. Has received a moving violation warning or ticket

I know that removing driving privileges will be just about the hardest thing you will ever have to do, but if your driver isn't as safe as he or she was 5 years before you started noticing changes, it's something you MUST do for the sake of everyone.

This answer is provided by Molly Shomer, MSSW, LMSW, a family caregiving specialist and licensed geriatric care manager. Molly, a nationally recognized expert on eldercare issues, is the author of The Insider's Guide to Assisted Living. Her website is, and she can be reached at

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