Monday, March 11, 2013

Driving and Alzheimer’s

According to a Scandinavian study published in the Washington Post, about half of older drivers killed in traffic crashes have signs of Alzheimer’s disease. These statistics suggest that older drivers involved in accidents should be tested for cognitive performance such as thinking and judgment. Additionally, family members and doctors of individuals with Alzheimer’s should watch for symptoms of impaired judgment or coordination that can lead to vehicular accidents and/or fatalities.

Private cars account for over 90 percent of trips made by seniors,” said Dr. David Carr, a geriatrician and a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, when he spoke at the Institute for Dementia Research and Prevention Forum last October. “While it’s often imperative for the safety of the driver and others on the road, losing the ability to drive is one of the biggest blows to an elderly person’s independence.”

So, how do we take the keys away from Mom or Dad when they are suffering from Alzheimer’s and/or Dementia? As Dr. Carr inferred, the ability to drive is often the last bit of independence and symbol of competence that an individual has, so taking those keys away can be a daunting and formidable task.

There are generally three requirements to be an able driver: vision, cognition and motor ability. These characteristics often decline with age, and all contribute to the safety of driving.

If you’re loved one continues to drive, pay attention to some warning signs for unsafe behavior:

1) Does he/she have difficulty navigating to familiar places, changing lanes or making turns?

2) Does he/she confuse the brake and accelerator pedals?

3) Does he/she have difficulty reading traffic signals?

4) Does your loved one make slow decisions?

5) Do they drive at an inappropriate speed or hit curbs while driving?

6) Does he/she become angry or confused while driving?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, these are indications that it is time to have your loved one stop getting out on the road. Easier said than done.

It helps to see the physician and get a note from in writing to be a useful reminder for him/her to stop driving. It is also a good idea to keep car keys out of sight and if possible, remove the car out of the driveway so the individual is not reminded of it all day. Often, family members remove a battery cable or have a mechanic install a “kill switch” that must be engaged before the car will start. Some families get creative and tell their loved one that the insurance has expired and the car can’t be driven.

Or, the individual can undergo a Driving Assessment and from that authority, with results in hand, be willing to relinquish the keys. At the Baton Rouge Rehab Hospital, for instance, an Occupational Therapist can perform a clinical evaluation to determine the safety of driving. A cognitive assessment tool is given as well as a Road Evaluation and recommendations will be made based on these results.

Focused concentration and quick reaction time declines with age and accelerates with Alzheimer’s. At first, the decision may be difficult to take those keys away and your loved one may mourn the loss of independence. However, you would not want to endure the consequences of that loved one being involved in a traffic accident. Take the keys no matter how much it hurts the both of you. 

-Dana Territo, Director of Services