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Driving Dilemmas: Risk vs. Independence

By Kristine Dwyer, Staff Writer

(Page 2 of 5)
 

Dementia and Driving Cessation
Alzheimer’s disease and driving safety is of particular concern to society. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common cause of dementia in later life and is a progressive and degenerative brain disease. In the process of driving, different regions of the brain cooperate to receive sensory information through vision and hearing, and a series of decisions are made instantly to successfully navigate. The progression of AD can be unpredictable and affect judgment, reasoning, reaction time and problem-solving. For those diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, it is not a matter of if retirement from driving will be necessary, but when. Is it any wonder that driving safety is compromised when changes are occurring in the brain? Where dementia is concerned, driving retirement is an inevitable endpoint for which active communication and planning among drivers, family, and health professionals are essential.

Current statistics from the Alzheimer’s Association indicate that 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and this number is expected to rise to 11-16 million by the year 2050. Many people in the very early stages of Alzheimer’s can continue to drive; however, they are at an increased risk and driving skills will predictably worsen over time. The Alzheimer’s Association’s position on driving and dementia supports a state licensing procedure that allows for added reporting by key individuals coupled with a fair, knowledgeable, medical review process.

Overall, the assessment of driving fitness in aging individuals, and especially those with dementia, is not clear cut and remains an emerging and evolving field today.

Physician’s Role in Driving Cessation
While most older drivers are safe, this population is more prone to vehicle accidents due to decreased senses, chronic illness and medication-related issues. The three primary functions that are necessary for driving and need to be evaluated are: vision, perception, and motor function. As the number of older drivers rises, patients and their families will increasingly turn to the physicians for guidance on safe driving. This partnership seems to be a key to more effective decision-making and the opinions of doctors vs. family are often valued by older drivers. Physicians are in a forefront position to address physical, sensory and cognitive changes in their aging patients. They can also help patients maintain mobility through proper counseling and referrals to driver evaluation programs. This referral may avoid unnecessary conflict when the doctor, family members or caregivers, and older drivers have differing opinions. (It should be noted that driver evaluation programs are usually not covered by insurance and may require an out-of-pocket cost.)

Not all doctors agree that they are the best source for making final decisions about driving. Physicians may not be able to detect driving problems based on office visits and physical examinations alone. Family members should work with doctors and share observations about driving behavior and health issues to help older adults limit their driving or stop driving altogether. Ultimately, counseling for driving retirement and identifying alternative methods of transportation should be discussed early on in the care process, prior to a crisis. Each state has an Area Agency on Aging program that can be contacted for information, and referrals can be made to a social worker or community agency that provides transportation services.

 

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