Driving & Dementia

Driving and dementia are two different words that don’t typically go together well…

According to the National Institute on Aging, by 2020, the BABY BOOMERS will be near retirement ages! People are simply living longer these days, and people are still working beyond usual retirement. With today’s economy, people are driving longer too. It’s a wonderful thing to continue working and functioning as independently as one can in their advanced years, but the question remains as to when is it time for a person to consider when it’s unsafe to drive, knowing that as we age, our senses are aging too, causing slower reaction times while driving and creating an unsafe practice, while becoming a social norm?

The funny thing, is that by observation, families are unsuspecting of aging parents who may have some sort of dementia but who still work, or who still seem to be functioning independently, or worse, who still drive. This issue is one that I am seeing more of in my practice as an aging life care professional, than I ever used to, even a decade ago. Admittingly, many of us want to remain independent as long as possible. And on the flip side, if we are adult children, we had rather not be the ones to discuss the issue of safe driving with our aging parents, especially if the parent(s) desire to maintain that said independence. While personally and professionally I am an elder advocate, it is the safety and welfare for the aging person as well as the community at large for which I am trying to educate families on how to deal with a family member who very well present as a public safety risk. This is no easy task.

While there is no shame at all in driving in older age, there is an issue with being a safe driver. And that is exactly what we will touch on in this post today. When and if a loved one does suspect that an older person they know is driving with dementia, it is advised that the family have a “family meeting” right away to discuss this issue. A family meeting must include the aging loved one’s dignity, while pursuing goals of safety and well being. I’m reminded of of the “Beyond Driving With Dignity” workbook by Matt Gurwell, a former State Highway Patrol Officer, in which the forward states; “[f]or the senior driver, the issues revolve around independence, personal freedom, emotional dignity, and family status. For the adult children, safety and financial risk concerns, responsibility for transportation and personal needs, and other family dynamics come into play. For all family members, there is a great deal of emotional freight, and the need for a means of coming to grips with the underlying issues in a loving and caring way…”

I reiterate, that while the numbers of older drivers is growing, let me suggest that according to the U.S. Bureau, one in every four drivers is going to be 65 years of age, or older by 2030. We’re talking more than 30 million older drivers on the roads across the USA! I stated that as we age so do our senses. According to Carfit Assessments, a comprehensive program designed by the American Society on Aging in collaboration with AARP, the American Occupational Therapy Association and AAA; “As we age, changes in our vision, flexibility, strength, range of motion… reduced strength… stiff neck…depth perception…medication effects… ” and so much more, “reduce our control behind the wheel…”

What can a family do? Where does a family start when they do decide to have a “family meeting?” It is highly likely that if a family brings up the issue of a senior driving who has been diagnosed with dementia, that the issue may already be advanced. Whether or not, a loved one has been diagnosed with dementia, the issue remains, as to when is it time to get beyond driving? For aging persons wishing to drive, then going to the local driver’s testing center is highly recommended. In Tennessee, loved ones may request where the nearest driver’s testing center is located by contacting:

Tennessee Department of Safety

Driver Improvement Section

1150 Foster Avenue

Nashville, TN 37210

For families caring for a loved one with dementia, the best bet is to have the neurologist, or internist or geriatrician, or family PCP advise against driving with dementia. I have found that seniors in the early stages of dementia- when they are most likely still driving, tend to listen more carefully to their physicians than they do a family member, in many instances. I also help physicians for my families direct the senior to signing a “Family Driving Agreement.” This strategy involves a healthy discussion with the physician prior to the exam date and is followed by an in depth written agreement between the family and the senior as facilitated by the geriatric care manager and the physician to ensure safe driving practices.

Such driving agreements can also be found at https://www.keepingussafe.org

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