Driving and dementia don’t mix

Published 10:00 pm Monday, May 23, 2016

Because of our modern medicine and technology, we’re living longer, but with that benefit for many of us also come some serious problems. By the time we reach the age of 85, one out of two of us will have developed some form of diagnosable dementia, and it isn’t a sudden onset that is most concerning, it’s the fact that signs and symptoms begin several years earlier.

Based on national numbers, we can estimate that about 30 percent of drivers in WNC are seniors, which means about 125,000 senior drivers in Polk, Henderson, Transylvania and Buncombe counties – about 2,000 of them just in Tryon. About two percent of those residents have already been diagnosed with dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, and hundreds or thousands more may have symptoms but haven’t yet been clinically diagnosed.

Extrapolating from that we can estimate that the number of drivers in WNC who likely have cognitive impairment is several thousand, and that’s frightening. Working with seniors as part of her practice, my wife meets with families who are facing the problems associated with the care of a dementia patient and often hears that the family allows the impaired person to drive, even though they acknowledge the cognitive losses. That’s a formula for disaster.

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One aspect of such a disaster can be classified as culpable negligence which can apply if a driver with a known impairment drives his car, hits and kills someone. If found guilty s/he is likely to be sentenced to prison, and there may be financial damages as well. If a family is aware of a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, even early to moderate stage, that same charge of culpable negligence could be applied because the prosecution can argue that a person with memory loss could and did confuse the gas pedal with the break pedal, especially when reacting to an emergency.

For many senior couples, the husband may have always been the driver of the family car, and the healthy spouse may not want to argue or upset her husband so she allows the dementia patient to drive. If an accident occurs, both spouses are at risk – even if the car is only driven for short, local trips, the risk is high.

There have been cases where the family was aware of the memory issues of a loved one, but didn’t take away the car or prevent the patient from driving. Subsequently, the Alzheimer’s patient had an accident and was sued and lost. A good attorney representing the victim of a serious accident can devastate the finances of the driver’s estate. There may also be additional grounds to sue the family for failing to prevent the demented patient from driving.

Just as alcohol and driving are a terrible mix, so too is allowing a dementia patient to drive. If you have a loved one beginning to show signs of memory loss, it’s best to take steps to protect him or her from the many risks that are inherent to allowing that person to continue to drive. It’s not easy or fun, but neither is facing a jail sentence or financial devastation.

Ron Kauffman is a consultant and expert speaker on issues of aging, Medicare and Obamacare. Ron is the author of Caring for a Loved One with Alzheimer’s Disease, available as a Kindle book on Amazon.com. His podcasts can be heard weekly at www.seniorlifestyles.net/” www.seniorlifestyles.net. Contact Ron at 828-696-9799 or by email at  drron561@gmail.com.