Seniors Driving with Cognitive Problems

One of the most difficult discussions adult children are forced to have with their aging parents is the need for a “retirement” from driving.  Physical and cognitive changes associated with older age can make driving dangerous not only for elderly adults but also for those sharing the road. 

A recent study found that more than 600 seniors over 65 in a South Texas community had cognitive assessment scores that indicated a likelihood of impairment, and among them, more than 61 percent were current drivers.  Roughly a third of the caregivers responsible for these older adults expressed concern over the drivers’ ability to safely operate a vehicle. 

According to a recent U.S. News report, researchers from Michigan Medicine found that a majority of adults with cognitive impairment still drove. Conditions like Alzheimer’s disease affect about 1 in 9 American seniors over age 65, and millions more have other forms of dementia.  These neurological conditions can affect the physiological ability to drive, including visual and spacial comprehension impairment, changes in memory, and trouble problem-solving or making good judgements. 

Although many of the study participants reported limiting their time driving, avoiding night driving, or not driving in hazardous weather, dementia carries a medium to significant effect on driving impairment that can increase the risk of a motor vehicle accident.   Frail elderly adults are also more likely to suffer serious injuries as a result of a car crash.

Discussions about stopping driving with a loved one experiencing cognitive impairment should start early, and any concerns about independence, caregiver burden, and dignity should be addressed carefully and with consideration.  Having alternative transportation options mapped out in advance can provide comfort and ease stress during these difficult discussions.  Talking about stopping driving before cognitive decline has progressed too far and making a plan can also help seniors better understand the safety concerns.