When (and How) to Take Away the Keys from an Alzheimer’s Patient

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Nobody wants to be the one to have to take a loved one’s car keys away. Independence is important for many people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, making the loss of driving privileges especially difficult. Knowing whether or not it is safe for the person to drive is also a huge gray area much of the time.

But rather than leave things as they are in the hopes that you’ll know when the time is right and your loved one will be more cooperative, we encourage you to be proactive about deciding when and how to revoke driving privileges. It is vital that those who cannot safely drive do not drive, but also that those who can safely drive be allowed to do so.

If you have to take away the keys, it’s important to know that you’re doing it at the right time and in the right way so as not to cause unnecessary distress. Below are some quick tips for making sure your timing and strategies are appropriate for the situation.

Senior woman holding car key and smiling, selective focus

Start talking about it early.

This tip can kill two birds with one stone. First, it tells you how cooperative your loved one is going to be with giving up driving. Second, it gets the person used to the idea of potentially having their keys taken away, which will hopefully ease the feeling of loss when it happens for real. If you think you may need to get your loved one to “retire” from driving in the near future, make sure you have the discussion with them first before making any big decisions. Express your concern for them and appeal to their sense of responsibility.

If you’re not sure, do a driver’s test.

A driver’s test is a surefire way to make sure your loved one is capable of being safe on the road. It may also be helpful to work with an occupational therapist who is trained and experienced in dealing with elderly drivers.

Even if driving is okay now, keep watching for changes.

Many people with Alzheimer’s can drive just fine for a while. During the first two years after diagnosis, accident rates for those with Alzheimer’s stays at about the same rate as for normal adults. But the progressive nature of this disease means that anyone with Alzheimer’s who lives long enough will eventually have to surrender their car keys for safety reasons.

Keep watching for traffic violations and slow reaction times when you’re in the car with the person. Pay attention to how often they get lost, squint at roadsigns, ignore traffic rules, forget how certain parts of the car work, or fail to hear sirens or the horns of other cars.

Using a key to unlock car door

Reduce the need for travel.

You can slowly ease the person away from the steering wheel by reducing how often they feel the need to drive. Having a friend or family member take them places or having groceries and other necessities delivered right to their door is a good start to making a person with Alzheimer’s feel like it’s okay not to be able to drive.

Only take the keys away as a last resort.

The physical action of taking away the person’s keys or even their car to keep them from driving could have a huge impact on them. We recommend this step only if gentler methods have not worked and the person is a threat to themselves or others on the road.

What about after?

After your loved one has “retired” from driving, we recommend watching out for signs of depression and talking to their doctor about any concerns you have about their health in general, but particularly as it relates to their new inability to drive.

If you have tips for how to get a loved one with Alzheimer’s to “retire” from driving, we’d love to hear about them in the comments! If you would like to hear more tips on keeping Alzheimer’s patients out of the driver’s seat after their driving privileges have been revoked, click “next” to read “What to Do When an Alzheimer’s Patient Wants to Drive Again.”

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Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?