Driving and Memory Loss: Tips to Help Elders Give Up Driving

For many of us, a car is a sign of independence. But this emotional connection to our automobiles is part of what makes convincing a person that he or she is no longer capable of driving such a volatile battle. The longer adult children or others wait to discuss driving issues with a loved one, the harder it can be.

Occasionally, people in the earlier stages of cognitive or physical decline will recognize the signs of that decline when they have a close call while driving and scare themselves into giving up their right to drive. More frequently, if the person has developed Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia, and the disease has advanced to a point where judgment is affected, a prolonged battle often erupts.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is an excellent resource for issues around senior driving and convincing those with dementia to give up their car keys.Their list includes:

  • Talking to the person who should quit driving about the dangers they are presenting to themselves and others

  • Asking their doctor to write on a prescription pad, “stop driving"

  • Taking the person for a driving test

  • In stubborn cases, disabling the car

I’d also like to suggest a few additional ideas gleaned from years of interaction with caregivers faced with this dilemma, as well as from seniors facing unfair judgment based on age alone.

For drivers who should be examining their skills:

  • Age alone is not a reason for an elder to quit driving. There are 75-year-olds with terrific judgement, excellent reflexes, good eye sight and very fine brains.

  • Cognitive and physical problems are a reason to quit driving. However, adult children should address those limitations in a sympathetic manner.

  • Do not attack the person’s character. This is supposed to be a solid talk based on facts about driving and the person’s ability to do so. Try to remain calm and expect to let the person grieve what for some is a heartbreaking loss.

  • Unless the need to stop driving is an emergency, allow the person the space to self-limit driving. Many people can safely drive in a non-congested, familiar area in daylight for a significant amount of time longer than he or she can drive in high traffic or at night.

  • While the person is winding down his or her driving, research alternative methods for remaining independent. If your loved one lives in a community that offers senior rides, look into how to set up this type of transportation. If you are able to do so, offer rides to events that occur at night or that are held in high-traffic areas. Gradual changes are often easier to handle than just taking away the keys.


For emergency intervention or stubborn older drivers:

  • Consider the steps covered by the NIH such as asking the doctor. Perhaps you can do this in a letter written ahead of an appointment, to tell the person pointedly that he or she can no longer drive safely, and have the order written as a prescription.

  • Ask your loved one’s oldest friend, or perhaps a respected clergy member, to make the request. Often these people will be viewed as less self-interested than adult children -- and often they are.

  • Contact your department of motor vehicles and ask that they demand a driver’s test before the license is renewed. Some states do cooperate in this effort if the requesting person has a strong reason.

  • Tell the person who shouldn't drive that the car is getting repairs and isn’t done yet. During this time, offer rides and suggest senior transit or cab services. Just keep putting off getting the repairs “finished.” Alternately, disable the car. Some people take out the battery, cut wires, flatten tires, or carry out other methods of sabotage.

Compassion is required

Keep in mind that your loved one is losing something that has symbolized adulthood and independence. Show compassion rather than anger, but stick with it. Continue to offer alternatives and eventually things should improve.

Carol Bradley Bursack
Meet Our Writer
Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. This experience provided her with her foundation upon which she built her reputation as a columnist, author, blogger, and consultant. Carol is as passionate about supporting caregivers work through the diverse challenges in their often confusing role as she is about preserving the dignity of the person needing care. Find out much more about Carol at mindingourelders.com.