Driving, dementia, and doing the right thing

Whenever dementia diagnosis is discussed, one of the major barriers that explains why people delay seeking a diagnosis is the fear of giving up driving.

It is understandable and something I can relate to. I live in a very rural part of England – not having a car and being able to drive would be severely isolating for me, but driving is about more than just freedom and the ability to shop, socialise and pursue hobbies and activities that you enjoy. It is also about a way of life.

For most people, passing their driving test is one of those significant life moments, a signal for a young person that they’ve gone from being a dependent child to an independent adult. Most people cherish this status, and if you’ve had your license for the majority of your life, being faced with losing it can be a bitter pill to swallow. Not only that, but it can make you feel very ‘child’ like again at a time when other changes in your life are leaving you with the sensation of being stripped of your adulthood.

There are a lot of misconceptions about driving and dementia. A diagnosis, in itself, doesn’t necessary mean that you instantly stop driving. There are a myriad of medical complexities, everything from the type of dementia a person has and how it is affecting them (everyone is affected differently, even two people who have the same type of dementia may experience different symptoms), to how early the person has been diagnosed (they may have very mild symptoms, or their symptoms may be significantly advanced, or indeed anywhere in-between).

With the suggestion that medical science may be able to predict much earlier presentations of different types of dementia in the future, the chances are that changes in the brain that indicate very early forms of certain types of dementia could mean more people are diagnosed in the years to come at a time when they are still medically fit to drive.

And that is the key to the issue about driving. To my mind, it is a simple question about a person’s fitness to drive. There are many different medical conditions that can make you unfit to drive, as well as different medications. The interactions between different conditions and medications are also important to understand. Dementia alone may not stop you driving immediately, particularly if you have been diagnosed quite early. It really depends on your individual circumstances.

As every UK driver knows, they have to inform DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) of any medical conditions that may affect their ability to drive, and also inform their insurance company. If the person doesn’t want to voluntarily surrender their license, there has to be a medical report compiled by their doctor to help the DVLA make their decision about that person’s fitness to drive. The outcome will be that either the license will be revoked (you need to be retested in order to get a license again) or renewed for a fixed duration before another review.

At every stage, the compliance of the driver is preferable to make the process as seamless as possible, but what happens when the driver doesn’t feel that there is any medical reason to contact the DVLA? They may be symptomatic but not diagnosed with dementia, or indeed may have received a diagnosis but be struggling to accept it.

This is a conundrum that many families face. Sometimes family members recognise the problems the person is having with their driving before the person does themselves. Even if the person is noticing issues like getting lost in otherwise familiar places, being unsure of how to operate a previously familiar car, or having ‘near-misses’ whilst on the road, they may just dismiss it, or try to hide their problems out of embarrassment or fear.

Families often find themselves in the position of arbiters on their loved one’s ability to drive, caught between not wanting to report their loved one’s declining driving skills but at the same time being worried for their relative’s safety and the safety of others. If the person who is experiencing symptoms that are affecting their driving is also the main driver in a partnership, and either their partner only drives infrequently or not at all, losing their license could have significant implications for their partner/carer/family too.

It is, by any stretch of the imagination, an unpleasant situation to find yourself in. It can cause huge arguments in relationships and the wider family, can result in family members going behind their loved one’s back to take steps to revoke their license or take their car away, and can cast a very long shadow that makes a person hostile towards seeking help if they have undiagnosed dementia symptoms.

Of course everyone is different – some people pragmatically face up to difficulties with driving and voluntarily give up their license before they might be formally required to do so. But even talking to people in memory clinics who’ve been diagnosed with a type of dementia, the topic of driving still brings up strong opinions.

In my dad’s case, during the 10 years he lived with dementia prior to his diagnosis, he became an unsafe driver. He didn’t recognise his shortcomings, however, and wanted to continue to drive. Everything came to a head when he demonstrated his intention to continue to drive by sending his car to the garage for some very expensive repairs that were needed to make the car roadworthy.

Not only could he not afford the repairs (but didn’t realise he couldn’t afford the repairs), had the car come home ready to drive he would have been a danger to himself and to other people on the roads. In the face of very dogmatic conversation (dad lost his reasoning skills very early on in his dementia), I had no choice but to have the car sent for scrap. Any other outcome was either going to result, at best, in debt, and at worst in an accident.

I didn’t like having to take the action I did, nor did it make me particularly popular for a while, but I felt a strong responsibility not just to my dad but also to other road users. You could argue it was paternalistic of me, and I wouldn’t disagree, but to this day I would defend the decision I took. My only regret is that dad didn’t make the decision that had to be taken himself. It would have been infinitely preferable for all concerned if he had.

Sadly I will never know if the symptoms of dad’s dementia prevented him making that decision, or if he would have always resisted any notion of giving up driving for any medical reason, not just vascular dementia. At the time it was another of those very confusing, isolating moments that you have as a family with a loved one who has undiagnosed dementia where you grapple with the dicey question of, ‘What is the right thing to do?’

It’s not a question I would wish on other families, and but for me, finding the answer was one that ultimately came down to the legalities of fitness to drive. It is illegal to drive a car when you are not medically fit to do so, and driving, whilst hugely important in the lives of so many people and something none of us necessarily ‘want’ to give up, isn’t worth pursing if you cannot do it safely.

Until next time…

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