Driving Under the Influence of Dementia is Never Safe

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A newly-published analysis of Florida's "Silver Alert" program—a public warning system designed to help locate and recover missing seniors who have dementia—has yielded interesting insights into why some elderly drivers get lost.

It's nearly impossible to drive on a Florida highway and not see a "Silver Alert" notification flashing on an overhead sign.

The system has sent out an average of two notifications per week to alert law enforcement officers and the public that an elder has gone missing, since its 2008 inception.

Researchers from the University of South Florida examined these alerts, and uncovered several important patterns:

  • Over 70 percent of missing drivers were men, who traveled an average of 116 miles from their homes before being found. Researchers hypothesized that men were more likely to go missing while driving.
  • Most drivers got lost while on routine trips (going to the doctor, shopping, visiting friends) that their caregivers (typically their spouse) agreed to let them go on. Less than one-third of lost drivers took the keys without their caregiver's knowledge.
  • Only about 20 percent of missing drivers were still driving around when they were found. The rest had either been involved in an accident, were sitting in their parked car or had gotten out of the vehicle and were wandering around on foot.
  • 15 percent of missing seniors were discovered in potentially dangerous situations (i.e. parked on railroad tracks or in the middle of the road, walking in an isolated area)

The constant threat of a person with Alzheimer's wandering weighs heavily on the shoulders of their caregivers—and with good reason.

The Alzheimer's Association estimates that about 60 percent of people with the disease will wander away from home.

Study authors stress the crucial differences between an elder who wanders away on foot and one who goes missing while driving.

Wandering is typically part of a pattern of repetitive Alzheimer's behavior. But it's harder to predict whether a senior with mild dementia will get lost while driving.

Lapses in memory and judgment can occur even during routine activities, such as going to the grocery store. Even if they've driven a route successfully a hundred times before, an elder may still get lost on the one-hundred and first trip.

Not to mention that a person in a car can travel much farther and encounter more perilous situations than those who wander off on foot.

Even if your loved one has minimal cognitive impairment, allowing them behind the wheel can be dangerous.

Research has shown that people with mild dementia often commit serious driving errors including drifting out of their lane, making incorrect turns, and driving the wrong direction.

The best way for caregivers to prevent a loved one with dementia from pulling out of the driveway and into danger is to bar them from driving altogether, study authors say.

Car keys have become emblems of independence for American adults, which can make this a daunting task for adult children.

Here are some additional resources to help you navigate this sticky situation:

Is It Time to Take Away the Car Keys?

Taking the Keys: What to Do if Mom or Dad Won't Give Them Up

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2 Comments

I've often wondered if my mother-in-law who has dementia, DIDN'T also have macular degeneration so she can barely see, could she still drive? I thought maybe she could, since when we're together driving she seems to be logical still about what to do behind the wheel. I guess we'll never know. But after reading that article, maybe it's better if I don't find out. :)
Thought provoking article