Minding Our Elders: When aging-related issues make driving unsafe
DEAR CAROL: My husband is 83-years-old and has always been a good driver. Although I’m 10 years younger than he is, I don’t like to drive, so throughout our 40 year marriage when we’ve gone anywhere together he’s driven.
Now, I believe he needs to quit driving because his vision has begun to fade due to macular degeneration. Also, he’s in the early stages of dementia and can become confused. During the past year he’s had three small car accidents.
He’s never been a stubborn person but when it comes to driving he refuses to let me take over. I’m afraid that he’ll get in a bad accident and hurt not only himself but other people. How do I convince him that he has to stop?
DEAR MILLY: Driving is about more than transportation. It represents independence and is even a part of one’s identity. This makes giving up driving a significant emotional blow. However, as you point out, driving beyond the time when mental and/or physical abilities are sufficient for safety is dangerous for everyone involved.
Have your asked your husband’s ophthalmologist and/or his dementia physician to tell him that it’s time to stop driving? If you don’t want to ask for this support in front of your husband, you can write a letter and let each of them know about your concerns. Note the accidents as well as close calls that you’ve witnessed. Ideally, both doctors would tell your husband that he should no longer drive and follow this up with a letter giving the reasons for their decision.
If your husband still insists on driving, you can contact the Department of Motor Vehicles and ask them to request a driving test for your husband. They may want you to send a copy of the letter from the doctor or doctors. The DMV should insist that your husband take a driving test which would include an eye exam. Quite likely he will fail one or both of the tests.
Your husband will probably say that they are wrong and he’s going to drive anyway. That’s the nature of dementia. Unfortunately, the worse his dementia becomes the more likely it is that he’ll think he can drive safely because his judgment will continue to deteriorate.
It’s possible that your husband may accept his diminishing vision more readily than his dementia as a reason to stop driving. Use whatever approach works best. Remind him that if he continues to drive he could kill or maim a child because of his poor sight.
You’ll need to reassure your husband that you can take him where he needs to go. You could also suggest the option that he take a bus, a cab or a senior ride to his activities if he prefers. That might allow him to feel more independent.
Driving is probably going to be an ongoing issue, but you need to stand strong and see it through. Tell him often that he still has valuable skills and that not driving doesn’t make him less of a man.
You’re faced with a tough situation but you have a lot of company. A support group for caregivers of people with dementia could help you feel connected to others who have the same issues that you are experiencing. Contact your local Alzheimer’s organization for information about meetings.