Dementia defines a group of symptoms that result in a decline in memory and thinking skills that affect a person’s life. It’s not one disease, but the most common cause is Alzheimer’s disease which accounts for up to 80% of cases of dementia.
Dementia usually starts with forgetfulness and memory issues then progresses to a reduction in problem-solving ability, difficulties with speech and language, difficulty doing day-to-day activities and, eventually, complete disorientation and memory loss.
Warning signs of dementia while driving
- Not remembering where they are driving, or getting lost on a familiar route
- Driving very slowly
- Misinterpreting signs and traffic lights, for example confusing red with green, or not seeing stop or give way signs
- Confusion when changing lanes or stopping
- Reversion to old habits, for example if a driver learned to drive on the right-hand side in another country, they may revert to this and become confused
- Inability to make good judgements, such as gap selection, anticipating danger, etc
- An increase in the number of dents and scrapes on their vehicle caused by misjudging manoeuvres.
In order to drive safely a person must have quick reactions, good hand-eye coordination, quick decision-making, good forward and peripheral vision and good judgement. These things tend to diminish with the onset of dementia.
Driving with dementia
Check the insurance policy for any restrictions on driving with dementia. Once the dementia is confirmed by a doctor this may mean that it must be disclosed to the insurance company, which then might refuse to continue coverage or may restrict the type of driving that can be done. A family doctor will be able to make a recommendation to the insurance company to help them form an opinion.
A doctor may suggest a driving assessment to determine whether a person has to have an assessment. You may also be able to get some input from the Police Traffic Unit.
Make a plan
If you have a relative who you suspect has dementia and is continuing to drive then you can start to make a plan which will ease the transition to not driving.
Firstly, talk to them about their driving and discuss your concerns around their safety. It’s better to do this while they still have their faculties and can decide to sell their vehicle. If their dementia is too advanced they may not realise they have a problem. It’s useful to engage a medical practitioner to give a qualified opinion.
Many people will be afraid of losing the independence they have when driving. Alternative transport options may be readily available in a city, but not in rural areas. Is there anyone else who can help them by driving them around? Are there local organisations such as Age Concern who provide trips for social contact. Search online for options.
A family may need to ensure that a person does drive.
Worst case scenario
If you suspect a relative who has serious dementia is still driving you can ask NZTA to revoke their licence.