Ask The Expert About Driving Safely with Dementia

Ask The Expert: Driving Safely with Dementia

C. T. Scialfa, PhD
Emeritus Professor of Psychology
University of Calgary
Alberta, Canada

If you care for a person who has early dementia, you may worry about their ability to drive safely. Here’s something that might surprise you: with appropriate training, certain people with mild dementia may be able to continue driving, , says C. T. Scialfa, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.

Dr. Scialfa and a University of Calgary research team examined the kind of tests that could predict which older adults with dementia could continue to drive safely. Recently, he answered some questions about their safety on the road. 

Q. Did your team conclude that several different tests are necessary to measure different abilities and predict how safe a driver with dementia will be?

A. Yes. Given how complicated a task driving is, and how many brain activities it involves, testing a driver’s safety should include physical, visual, and memory tests.

Q. What is the best advice for older adults and their families who are concerned about their ability to drive safely?

A. I’d offer the same type of advice I’d give for any important and emotionally charged issue where someone’s skill is in question. First, get expert, objective opinions. Then, build on the driver’s skills by having them take some training classes.

Q. What if people are reluctant to take classes? Aren’t many older drivers resistant to doing so?

A. Yes, they may be. But I ask them, “If you want to improve your golf game, you go out and take a lesson from a golf pro, right? So why not hone your skills with a driving expert? If you can’t drive, you won’t be able to drive to play golf.”

Q. Which is the best professional to choose for evaluating an older driver?

A. An expert could be a primary care physician, but in most cases, it’s better to consult a qualified driving instructor or an occupational therapist who has expertise in driving.

Though medical doctors are often asked to evaluate drivers and make decisions about their ability to drive, MDs often do not have the skills required to properly evaluate someone’s ability to drive.

Q. Can people with mild dementia be safe drivers?

A. I would give a qualified “yes” to this question, but it’s important to remember that one of the realities of dementia is how frequently a person’s mental capabilities can change. In particular, their performance can change dramatically from one day to the next. That’s why driving practice is so critical.

Because many of us, tend to drive less frequently as we age we can lose our skills and become more vulnerable. So while it’s probably a good idea for people with dementia to drive less, it’s also a good idea that they take occasional lessons with a driving expert to help keep their skills as sharp as possible.

Q. What would you like older adults or their families to understand as a result of your study?

A. Until cars can drive themselves (a technology that’s currently in development), or until effective alternatives to the private car exist, driving will continue to be one of the most complex, vital, and dangerous things we do. Everyone, not just those who may be medically at risk, would be well-advised to get their driving skills evaluated and to get more training.

Let me give you an example: I’m closing in on my 60th birthday, and decided I might want to ride a motorcycle through Asia. I took a three-day course with a very good school. In the end, I decided that the risks are too great, given my abilities. I’ll go to Asia—but I’ll take public transportation instead.

AARP has an easy, online driving evaluation for older drivers. Access it here.

Last Updated February 2017

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