One New Jersey couple in the study, both with dementia, got lost on a trip to the store and drove around until they ran out of gas. The husband went for help but was unable to direct authorities to his car. His wife was found dead several days later.
Hunt, who thinks the problem is "bigger than we realize," called her study "the tip of the iceberg." The public needs to become more aware of this problem because it has been previously thought that Alzheimer's patients' driving ability need only be monitored, said Hunt.
Only six states -- Oregon, California, Nevada, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey -- have mandatory reporting laws when a doctor finds a patient is mentally impaired. Sometimes those who have lost a license get it restored. When people suspected of being unable to drive safely are examined, the tests are brief and navigational ability is not evaluated, said Hunt.
However, advocates for Alzheimer's patients believe that driving privileges should not be terminated upon a diagnosis. Elizabeth Gould, director of quality care programs at the Alzheimer's Association's national office in Chicago, said it is not always necessary to stop driving right away.
"Our position is that a diagnosis alone is not sufficient to have someone's driving privileges taken away because many people in the early stages can still drive safely," said Gould. "It (driving) needs to be monitored." Evaluations need to be done periodically by a professional, such as an occupational therapist, she added.
Gould urges family members to begin a conversation upon diagnosis, using "a gentle appeal." In the early stages, the patient will have more insight into the problem, she said. If it is decided the patient can no longer drive, the doctor can "play the heavy," she said.
The Alzheimer's Associatio
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