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4 Ways to NICELY Take Away the Car Keys

Dementia 401*: 4 Ways to NICELY Take Away the Car Keys (or the Car!)

* In colleges and universities, basic classes are given numbers that start with 1, like English 101. The higher the number of the class, the more advanced it is. So, I decided that this issue deserved a “higher” number.

In yesterday’s blog, I wrote about some signs that it may be time for the person with dementia to stop driving. In this blog, I offer some suggestions that I have used, or other family caregivers have used, to end driving. The worst thing you can do (in most cases) is to hold a “family meeting” and explain to mom or dad why everyone wants them to stop driving. If the person with dementia is unaware of their memory problems and driving issues, this approach will get you nowhere!

  1. Take a “break” from driving. In my practice, I often tell the person with dementia (PwD) that I want him or her to “take a break” from driving until I can see them again (3-6 months later). Most times, the PwD is unaware that he or she has memory problems and will hotly deny it if someone brings up the topic. I try to use a physical, non-threatening reason for the “break” (see #2). Think about it: what feels better to you, “Give up chocolate for a couple of months” or “You can never have chocolate again”? 

2. Use a physical reason for the driving “break.” As we age, we have more and more physical problems that could create driving issues. If the person has any physical limitation that could REMOTELY pose a problem, I use that. Some examples include neck pain (Since you can’t turn your neck, take a break from driving until we get that fixed), hip or knee problems, and even foot numbness from diabetes. Six weeks after my right knee replacement, my son accompanied me while I drove around. I thought my driving was fine, but he had concerns about my reaction time and use of the pedals. I stopped driving for 3 more weeks until my reaction time improved. Now, if you had told me I needed to stop driving because of my memory…

If #1 and #2 don’t work:

3. Disable the vehicle. Depending on the year, make, and model of the car, this can be done in a variety of ways. For cars that use the electronic fobs (keyless), remove the battery (or have the dealer do this). For older makes and models, disconnect the battery cables. I’m sure there are other ways to disable vehicles; my family caregivers never cease to amaze me with creative ways to render the vehicle non-drive-able. One caveat: I had one situation where the patient with dementia asked a neighbor to look at her car, and the helpful neighbor reconnected the battery cables. So, if you go this route, you may want to let the “helpful neighbors” know what is going on.

4. Remove the vehicle. One family member told his dad that the car needed some recall work. He drove the car over to another family member’s house and placed it in the garage. For a couple of weeks, dad asked about the car and the response was, “It is still in the garage getting work done.” Ultimately, dad stopped asking about the car. Many other creative family members used variations on the theme of “the car is getting work done.” No matter how tempting, DO NOT tell the PwD that the car has been stolen. You will cause feelings of fear and anxiety, which is not only a crappy thing to do but these feelings may trigger a domino-effect of other emotions. Or the PwD may report the car stolen and YOU  have created a ginormous mess.

For those readers who have tackled this problem, I look forward to hearing any suggestions or comments that may help others!

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Categories: Caregiving Dementia Driving Understanding Behaviors

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Dr. Rita Jablonski

Rita Jablonski, PhD, CRNP, FAAN, FGSA is a nurse practitioner, researcher, tenured professor, and former family caregiver. Her research and practice involve all aspects of dementia management; she is best known for non-drug strategies to address dementia-related behaviors.

7 replies

  1. Take away the keys & hide them in a place where the pwd can not find them. He still tells me every move to make in driving but that’s better than him running into something or someone. He gets to see scenery that he has not been able to enjoy before.God bless you, Rita!! Love your blog and this disease is a B****!

    1. Good idea, Judith! I did have a very creative PwD who managed to find the hidden keys every time!

  2. I had a key fob made that would not start his truck but would do all other functions. My husband has scar tissue from surgery years ago so far mostly affects words, he still has the thoughts but blabber comes out. Some times I can figure out most times not.

  3. Got “lucky” on this one. Granddaughter was going away to college and needed her own car. Grandma agreed that we could get by with just my truck which she had no desire to drive. Still trying to have her give up her license but without a car it’s not a major problem.

    1. I think you were smart to use life situations to help with the driving transition. You may want to consider making a color copy of Grandma’s drivers license and laminating it, while putting the “real” one in a safe place. She may start misplacing items and you can always “find” the replacement.

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