Talk aims to help families discuss driving, dementia

Posted April 01, 2009, at 5:47 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:38 a.m.

The lure of the open road is hard to deny, not to mention the independence that goes along with hitting the streets. But what happens when getting behind the wheel is no longer an issue of personal freedom but of personal safety? And the safety of others on the road?

“So many families run into this issue as it is often the first sign of dementia,” said Kristie Miner, Reflections Program director at Westgate Manor in Bangor. “People may get lost while driving or are employing unsafe practices, and this is clearly seen by the family and a sign that something needs to be done.”

But how should the subject be approached with an independent loved one who most likely is unaware of the hazards or unwilling to discuss them?

Miner has a plan. If you are worried about someone you love who has memory problems but is still driving, attend the Finding a Balance presentation, offered by Dawn Byrne-Richmond, state of Maine driving instructor and AARP Driving Safety instructor of TGFTIB Driving School, 7-9 p.m. Thursday, April 9, at Westgate Manor, 750 Union St., Bangor. There is no cost and the public is welcome. This presentation is geared to help “family members, caregivers and friends address this delicate matter of giving up the keys,” said Miner.

“It can be hard to judge when it is appropriate to have the conversation,” she added. “And for many adult children, this is a new role as they have never been in a position of telling their parents what to do, yet there is an inherent responsibility resting on the children’s shoulders. The challenge is to preserve a person’s sense of independence for as long as possible, while simultaneously protecting the safety of that person and others.”

As with everything in life, driving ability is individualized. As we age, our skill level tends to deteriorate, and while some people drive into their 90s, others may be unable to stay behind the wheel.

Being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another kind of dementia will not automatically get a person’s license pulled nor should it. However, since it is often difficult to determine when someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia becomes a danger on the road, it is up to the family and the person’s health care provider to start the conversation and in some cases make the decision to end the person’s driving.

For example, “a person’s attention span, distance perception or the ability to process information, which makes it difficult to respond safely in potentially hazardous driving situations,” said Miner.

Other warning signs of driving problems listed on www.thehartford.com/alzheimers include:

ä Riding the brake.

ä Easily distracted while driving.

ä Other drivers often honk horns.

ä Hitting curbs.

ä Scrapes or dents on the car, mailbox or garage.

ä Increased agitation or irritation when driving.

ä Uses copilot.

ä Near misses or car accident.

ä Confusion at exits and getting lost in familiar places.

ä Confusing the gas and brake pedals.

There also is a worksheet available from www.thehartford.com/alzheimers, Warning Signs for Drivers with Dementia, that provides a “systematic, objective way to assess driving over time. It can help caregivers be more attentive to any decline in abilities,” according to the Web site. If you don’t have a computer and would like a copy of this worksheet, call Eastern Area Agency on Aging and one will be mailed to you.

Keep in mind that the regularity and seriousness of unsafe driving incidents is a red flag, said Miner, and that several small incidents or a major incident may necessitate action on the family’s part.

Many seniors recognize problems that they may have with driving and make the decision themselves, such as curtailing night driving. The difference is that people with dementia may be unable to recognize the changes and consequently are unable to respond to their decreased skill level.

For information on the Finding a Balance presentation, call Miner at Westgate Manor, 942-7336.

Carol Higgins Taylor is director of communications at Eastern Area Agency on Aging. E-mail Higgins Taylor at chtaylor@eaaa.org. For information on EAAA, call 941-2865, 800-432-7812, e-mail info@eaaa.org or log on EAAA.org. TTY 992-0150.

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