When someone is diagnosed with a form of memory loss, it can be frightening. Every area of life can be impacted, not least of which is their ability to drive. They may suffer from delayed reactions, lack of concentration, or impaired judgment. Whether it is the result of dementia, age, trauma, or medical problems, the inability to think clearly, focus on the road and recall information can pose real safety issues to drivers.
Regardless of the source of memory loss, it can harm one’s ability to drive.
Milder struggles can include difficulty remembering routes and locations. As memory loss worsens, a driver may also struggle with recalling the meaning of road signs or the rules of the road. They may fumble with the radio or the windows as they struggle to recall how to operate them, which can distract them from the road. Additionally, vehicle features change and develop with technology advancements. Memory loss can make it difficult or impossible to learn these new features and how they work. This can lead to confusion and lack of confidence behind the wheel.
In more severe cases of memory loss, especially those associated with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, victims may also struggle with coordination. Tasks such as steering while shifting a manual transmission can become overwhelming. Making quick judgment calls at intersections or in response to traffic and road conditions can become more difficult. Some may even struggle to remain alert and oriented to their surroundings or find themselves confused and unable to cope with the demands of being behind the wheel.
With Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, the progressive nature of the illness means that a person’s ability to drive can deteriorate with time. They may start out with only minor deficits, but either quickly or slowly develop more serious issues that can lead to increased restrictions on their driving, or even retirement from the road altogether. More severe cases may experience hallucinations and have behavioral issues that make it too dangerous for them to stay behind the wheel. As their brain deteriorates, this may also affect other functions in the body, rendering them physically unable to drive as well.
Finally, memory loss can affect people’s ability to take their prescribed medicine as prescribed. Some drivers have reported accidentally double dosing their medication, while others will unknowingly forget to take theirs at all. This is obviously a big problem as it relates to driving and can lead to very risky situations on the road.
Studies have shown that brain-training activities can help to improve memory function in those with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other forms of memory loss. This often takes place in the form of games and puzzles that focus on reasoning, memory, recognizing patterns, and quickly processing information. Playing a musical instrument, speaking a second language, or doing crossword puzzles and sudoku can also help sharpen memory skills.
It is also important to get adequate sleep, exercise regularly, and eat a healthy diet. Avoid junk foods and simple carbs, and increase nuts, fish, and other natural sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Check with your doctor about taking B and D vitamins.
Also, do your best to minimize stress and anxiety. Take up habits such as stretching and deep breathing to relax, listen to calming music, and enjoy some time out in nature.
Before you go out on the road, use a tool like Google Maps to familiarize yourself with the roads you will have to drive on. Do your best to only drive on familiar roads in places where you are very confident with how to get around. New and unfamiliar roads can be very frightening to a person struggling with memory.
The answer to this question is not straightforward. It largely depends on what type of memory loss you have, how severe it is, and whether it is progressing. In cases of reversible memory loss, it may just mean a season of inactivity while you undergo treatment, followed by a full return to driving. Or in mild instances of age-associated memory loss, there may be very few restrictions and no need to stop driving any time soon. In other cases, especially those of more severe Alzheimer’s and dementia, driving may no longer be safe, and there is no hope of ever returning to the driver’s seat.
With memory loss, and especially Alzheimer’s and dementia, the very nature of the disease can make convincing the victim that they need to stop driving a difficult task. They may not understand why you want them to stop, or even that they have a problem. In their minds, they may see themselves as healthy and independent and may feel threatened both by the possibility of losing their freedom and by the suggestion that they are unfit to keep their keys. For this reason, it is important to talk to them about their future driving as soon as they are diagnosed with a problem and while they are still capable of participating in the conversation at a rational level. If you already see red flags, be sure to document information about their driving abilities, behaviors, and specific incidents, as these facts may be useful in convincing them that they are no longer fit to drive.
The best course of action if you are concerned about how memory loss is affecting your driving or that of a loved one is to schedule a consultation with our Certified Driver Rehab Specialist. They will be able to evaluate your condition and determine whether you or your loved one can safely stay behind the wheel.
We work with each patient on an individual basis to determine what may be needed for them to continue to drive or to help them make the transition into retirement from driving. We evaluate the patient’s cognitive functions and reaction speed, as well as assess vision and physical health. Following a successful clinical evaluation, we will do a driving assessment to evaluate the practical skills behind the wheel. In these assessments, we will help the patient understand their changing abilities and make recommendations about their future behind the wheel.