Nov 15, 2014

Are We Forcing Those With Memory Loss to Relinquish Driving Too Soon

Do we feel comfortable riding in the car with Mom? Would we trust Mom to drive others, including children or loved ones?

By Nancy Wurtzel
Alzheimer's Reading Room

Are We Forcing Those With Memory Loss to Relinquish Driving Too Soon

A few days ago I wrote about memory loss and driving - 7 Signs and How to Get a Person Living with Alzheimer's to Stop Driving.

When researching this topic, I learned there are no national policies or even guidelines in place regarding cognitive loss and driving. However, a handful of states, including California, Oregon, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, have instituted mandatory reporting laws.

In those states, when a physician determines a person is cognitively impaired -- even in the very early stages -- that doctor is obligated to report this diagnosis to the state department of motor vehicles.

Some memory loss experts are now questioning if this automatic response might not be necessary for everyone. They say the emphasis should be on driving ability rather than diagnosis.

For some individuals, could we taking the car keys away too soon?

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After all, driving is a learned skill that becomes ingrained over time. This is probably why in the earliest stages of the disease, the accident rate for a person with Alzheimer’s is comparable to those who do not have the disease. And, since the disease progresses differently from person-to-person, a recently diagnosed individual with mild memory loss may be able to continue driving without difficulty for a period of time.

It's important to note, the decision should be determined by the person’s current abilities and not by the desire to keep driving.

The Alzheimer’s Association recommends a third-party, independent driving assessment to determine capabilities and judgment behind the wheel.

Not a traditional driver’s test, this assessment can be conducted by a professional (often an occupational therapist) with specific training for those with memory loss. If this type of evaluation is not available, the caregiver can contact the state motor vehicle agency for a special evaluation.

Should the person pass the assessment, then the family members must establish driving guidelines, such as:
  • Only drive during the daylight hours
  • Never drive in poor weather conditions
  • Stick to familiar routes and steer clear of freeways or heavily trafficked roads
  • Avoid situations that add stress, such as transporting others
  • Conduct frequent driving evaluations, conducted at least every six months
  • Continuing to drive straddles a fine line of empowering the person with memory loss and protecting the person and others.
When my mother, who died last year after living with Alzheimer's for eight years, started to show memory issues, I knew nothing about a driving assessment.

Instead, my sisters and I asked ourselves:

Do we feel comfortable riding in the car with Mom? 
Would we trust Mom to drive others, including children or loved ones?

For all three of us, the answer was 'no' to both questions. Even though Mom resided in a small, rural town with just three stop lights and drove only a few times a week, we knew she should no longer be behind the wheel. We didn't need a driving evaluation, we simply knew.

Driving with memory loss isn't a simple,one-size-fits all decision. But the decision is not whether to give up driving, but when to give up driving.

Above all, safety trumps everything.

Nancy Wurtzel
Nancy Wurtzel writes Dating Dementia -- a slightly twisted and humorous blog -- about making big changes at midlife. Read about Nancy's journey through divorce, restarting a career, empty nest challenges, moving home, baby boomer issues and caring for an aging parent with Alzheimer’s disease. Visit Dating Dementia.

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