The dangers of driving when diagnosed with dementia

Driving has become a routine part in adult life for many people; it is a symbol of independence. However, the quick reaction and concentration needed for safe driving decreases with age and being diagnosed with dementia speeds up this process.

In order to drive safely a person must use a range of mental abilities. You have to have attention and concentration, keep an appropriate speed and distance, have problem-solving skills to respond to incidents, obstacles and diversions, have quick judgement and decision making in interpreting and anticipating other road users. Persons with dementia usually lose these skills on the onset of dementia. Research suggests that people living with dementia tend to overestimate their driving abilities, despite the fact that even those with mild dementia are at higher risk for unsafe driving.

If you have a loved one who has dementia, he or she may not be safe on the road. You will need to explain the risks to them and provide other ways for them to move around. This can be a difficult task as losing the ability and independence of driving can be upsetting for them.

Recognising the warning signs to stop someone with dementia from driving requires careful observation by family and caregivers. Here are 9 warning signs to look out for:

Difficulty navigating to familiar places: Problems with short-term memory make it easy for persons with dementia to get lost in familiar places. A simple trip to a regular grocery store could leave them driving around lost.

Poor lane control: Persons with dementia have poor judgement of distance and may pose a threat to other road users. They may stray off from their lane and collide with other road users or stray onto the oncoming lane, putting themselves and others in danger.

Confusing the gas pedal and the brake pedal: Persons with dementia often experience confusion, and while driving may confuse the gas pedal and the brake pedal. Where they should be stopping at an intersection they may press the gas pedal and move forward into a busy intersection.

Failing to observe traffic signs and getting distracted: Experiencing short-term memory loss as well as a loss in concentration is common in those living with dementia. They may fail to observe the traffic signals to stop or go. They also may incorrectly signal when turning that could cause a collision or road rage from other road users. They can also be easily distracted and fail to recognise warning signs and obstacles in the road.

Making slow or poor decisions in traffic: Persons with dementia don’t always have the ability to make quick reactions and decisions. They may not be able to avoid an obstacle on the road or may fail to move quickly out of the way of another motorist to avoid a collision.

Hitting the curb when driving: Having poor judgement of distance usually results in climbing or hitting the curb which may result in the buckling of the rim or a punctured tire. They may also hit a curb where pedestrians are and put their lives and the pedestrians lives at risk.

Driving at an inappropriate speed: Persons with dementia usually drive too slow and they can become a hazard on a busy freeway, or be the reason for road rage. They may not realise that they are driving slow on a fast lane.

Becoming confused and/or angry while driving: Experiencing confusion or anger is a common sign for those living with dementia and this can occur whilst driving. This may cause them to be upset at other road users or confused as to where they are going or where they are.

Returning from a routine drive later than usual and forgetting their destination: Persons with dementia often get confused and lose their sense of direction. A routine trip to the grocery store may prove to be a longer trip if they lose their way back or forget where they were going.

The following can be offered as alternatives to your loved ones:

Transition driving responsibility: You can ask family members and friends to help provide transportation for your loved one. This will help them still maintain some sort of independence when they need to carry out daily errands.

Arrange a taxi service: If your loved one is high functioning, then arranging for a taxi service (especially if they are going to a familiar place) shouldn’t be a problem. If your loved one is low functioning, then they should always be accompanied by a carer.

Reduce the need to drive: You can have their medication, groceries and meals delivered to their door so they don’t have to go and get them.

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Since 2011, the Livewell Group has been at the forefront of dementia and Alzheimer’s care in South Africa. We are motivated by a personal and heartfelt concern for the dignity and care of our elders and our efforts continue to be encouraged by the strong market need for specialised individual care.

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