Is Early Alzheimers a Reason to Stop Driving?

Getting lost can easily lead to a car accident

Driving skills may still be intact in early Alzheimer’s, but the risk of getting lost on familiar streets, may be greater than one would think, according to researchers from the School of Occupational Therapy at Pacific University, Oregon. Memory and navigation skills become impaired in early Alzheimer’s while poor judgment and reasoning frequently compound the problem.

In this recent study of 207 drivers with Alzheimer’s who went missing while driving, 32 died and 35 were found injured, while 70 were still not found by the time the data was analyzed.   Most had set off on routine and familiar trips to the post office, the local store or a relative’s house. Once lost, some had driven for almost two days and covered more than 1,700 miles.   One New Jersey couple in the study, both with dementia, got lost on a trip to the store and drove around until they ran out of gas. The husband went for help but was unable to direct authorities to his car. His wife was found dead several days later.

Giving up the car keys is  often a monumental loss for elderly folks who are considered unsafe to drive. Especially for men, it’s a milestone that represents a loss of independence, freedom and control.  Families are frequently put in the difficult position of identifying the problem and enforcing the restrictions. So what is a family to do?  Here are some helpful tips and resources: 

  • This is an important time to seek the help of the elderly person’s doctor.  Have a confidential meeting or phone conversation ahead of their visit so the doctor has a clear understanding of the circumstances.  People often will listen more to their doctor and less to their spouses and children about driving ability.
  • There are many excellent resources for family members available through the Area Agency on Aging.  Call their Senior Information Line at 800-645-2810 for a copy of booklets, brochures, or DVD’s about safe driving with aging.
  • The Alzheimer’s Association offers a web-based program called “Comfort Zone” that families of Alzheimer’s patients can use if the person can still drive safely in familiar places. The driver agrees to limit driving to a “comfort zone,” and a global positioning system (GPS) monitors driving. If the driver leaves the area, the family is notified in real time.

 Read more about “Comfort Zone

Source: Linda Hunt, Ph.D., associate professor, Pacific University, Oregon; Elizabeth Gould, M.S.W., director, quality care programs, Alzheimer’s Association, Chicago; March 2010, American Journal of Occupational Health

Source: “Driving With Early Alzheimer’s May Be Ill-Advised”, HealthDay, March 12, 2010

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