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Dementia and Driving Don't Mix

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For the first three months after the diagnosis, he continued to drive -- but not alone. "I pretty much insisted on being with him," Allen says.

But she also had a long-term plan that would curb his driving. When his driver's license renewal came in the mail, she hid it until the renewal time expired. That meant her husband, a retired professor at the University of Illinois, would have to go down to the motor vehicles department and re-take his tests. When it became obvious he could no longer pass the written test, he decided it was time to sell his car.

Not all drivers hang up their keys this gracefully, especially when they may be the primary drivers in their household. "I was very lucky," says Allen, herself a retired professor from the same university.

Joyce Bascom says her husband's driving skills also seemed to diminish very silently. "Wes was first diagnosed about five years ago," she tells WebMD. For some time he continued driving and working at the rental car agency with no problems, she says. Then one day she had to take her car in for repairs, so he followed her in his car.

"He was just driving very, very slowly so I told him that I would drive his car back. When I got in the car I discovered there were no brakes. None. That's when I knew he had to stop driving," she said.

Soon after this incident, her husband took the family van very early one morning. "I found out about that when I got a call from a woman who told me that my husband had pulled into a gas station, lost. He asked her to call home and gave her a phone number. It was his mother's phone number," says Bascom. In a final misadventure, her husband drove to the airport; once there, he became confused and was detained by airport security, she says.

Her husband's car is now being kept at another location, and Bascom says she plans to sell it. "He sometimes asks me, 'Where is my car?' and I just tell him it's in the shop being fixed," she says.

Bascom's story is typical, says Dubinsky; driving is a very emotional issue, and taking away driving privileges can severely limit mobility.

"We have a big problem nationwide because we don't have good public transportation, and it can be quite difficult to live an independent life without driving," says Dubinsky. Nonetheless, he says that physicians need to step in and tell the patient that he or she can not longer drive. Since the issue is so emotionally charged, "it's better for the physician to 'take the blame,'" he says.

Susan, who asked for anonymity, says taking the blame is a big issue. She says that her father, Walter, deteriorated over a very brief period of time, during which he made several desperate attempts to "get home -- home being the south side of Chicago where he [lived] many years ago," she says. His children were terrified by what could happen to him.

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