Driving and dementia don’t mix

Published 11:35 am Monday, May 8, 2023

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Having a car and a valid driver’s license is one definition of independence and provides people with the right to come and go wherever and whenever they please. It’s a privilege you qualify for that is bestowed upon you by the State. The problem, however, is that as we age, our driving skills, perceptions and reaction times often erode, and we’re just not as safe as we should be. For this article, I’m using the term dementia to cover the spectrum of cognitive impairment diseases, Alzheimer’s being the most prevalent that impacts a person’s memory.  

There are no doubt a number of drivers in our area who have cognitive impairment that is known to their spouses, family or doctors. These issues often impact their ability to drive safely and can create potential disasters.

My wife, who specializes in geriatric care management, often talks with families who are facing the problems associated with caring for a loved one with dementia. She often finds that the family allows the memory impaired loved one to continue driving, even though they acknowledge that they are aware of that person’s cognitive losses and is an unsafe driver.

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Following are some real-life tragedies that may help convince you, if you have a loved one with dementia, that at some point, driving and dementia do not mix.

Culpable Negligence – An elderly gentleman was sentenced to 15 years in prison due to a car accident. He killed a mother of two small children when he lost control of his car. His defense was that he had an epileptic seizure while driving. The court found him guilty of culpable negligence – driving even though he knew that he shouldn’t. This scenario could also apply to an Alzheimer’s patient, especially when the family is fully aware of the diagnosis. A person with memory loss could easily confuse the gas pedal with the brake pedal when reacting to an emergency.

Risking the Life of the Spouse – The healthy spouse is often motivated to allow the dementia patient to drive out of necessity, perhaps to avoid an argument. One wife recently explained, ‘My husband always did the driving. I never learned to drive. Now he doesn’t know where to turn, so I direct him while he drives. We only drive locally.” The sad part of this is that both spouses are at risk, and most accidents happen within a few miles of home.

Litigation Can Destroy Your Estate – I know of one Alzheimer’s patient that was sued for causing an auto accident. She was driving down the wrong side of the road when she hit an oncoming car. The size of her estate was the primary reason she was sued. Her adult children wish they had taken away the car sooner. The sad humor in her situation was during her deposition when she said, “What accident? I’ve never been in an accident! I’ve been driving since before you were born and my record is perfect!” Today, if you or the driver have assets, and you knew the driver was a risk, you are very likely going to be sued if an accident occurs.

It’s not easy taking away a loved one’s ticket to independence. But I’ve been there and having to go to court for a loved one who may have injured or killed someone because of the loss of their mental capability is not something you want to do under any circumstance. 

Ron Kauffman is a Consultant & Expert Speaker on Issues of Aging. He is the author of “Caring for a Loved One with Alzheimer’s Disease.” You may contact him by phone at (828) 696-9799 or by email at: drron561@gmail.com