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Dementia and Driving: Learning How To Cope, Learning When To Quit

Barb Cole, Advocate for the Alzheimer’s Association
Barb Cole, Advocate for the Alzheimer’s Association, continues to drive after being diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's about a decade ago. (Photo: Charles Fishburne) Charles Fishburne/WCVE

One of the greatest fears of people facing dementia is the loss of independence, including what happens to their mobility if they lose their driver’s license. But, advocates and the DMV say some can continue driving safely in the early stages of the disease. WCVE’s Charles Fishburne has more for Virginia Currents.


(Car sounds)

Barb Cole is driving me down a busy street. She has Alzheimer’s. She was diagnosed ten years ago, but is fighting it all the way.

Charles Fishburne: Do you feel confident driving down Floyd Avenue? 

Barb Cole: I feel confident driving. I am lucky to have GPS that I rely upon.

Cole is one of about 140,000 Virginians who have Alzheimer’s.

Marie Kolendo (Photo C. Fishburne)

Marie Kolendo: Each of us runs into people every single day that are in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and you would never know it.

Marie Kolendo is the Executive Director of the Greater Richmond Alzheimer’s Association.

Kolendo: In the beginning, dementia-Alzheimer’s impacts memory, right, short-term memory first. So people can still drive. It’s as the disease progresses, that they may have trouble with navigation or remembering other things, or communicating. But people can be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s five, ten years.

Cole is alert and careful.  She can find her way around. But the symptoms are there.

Fishburne: So how long ago were you diagnosed?

I learned later not to ask about times and dates and numbers. Here’s why:

Cole: Oh, ahhhh. I can’t do the math in my head.

Barb Cole (Photo C. Fishburne)

Barb was a math whiz in the mortgage industry, did calculations in her head, but was getting behind and she, like many others, found it frightening.

Laura Bowser: Absolutely, especially for people who have early onset, because they have jobs.

Laura Bowser’s mother died of early onset Alzheimer’s. She is now the Chair of the State Commission on Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders.

Bowser: They don’t want to lose their job

Fishburne: Jobs, driver’s licenses?

Bowser: Right, and eventually you will lose your driver’s license.

Fishburne: So it’s not a question of shame, but practicality?

Bowser: And freedom. People don’t want their freedoms taken away.

A diagnosis of dementia does not necessarily mean losing a license.

Brandy Brubaker: No, no, because dementia is progressive.

Brandy Brubaker at DMV

Brubaker: Someone might be diagnosed with early onset. They’ve got the family history and the beginning signs, but they are still fully capable of operating a motor vehicle. That’s why we want to do that additional testing.

DMV's Med 3 form. (Photo C. Fishburne)

Doctors are not required to inform DMV they have a patient diagnosed with dementia, but DMV does have a form anybody can fill out about someone they believe is a concern.

BrubakerWe have a medical review form that enables people to make reports to us, if they are concerned about someone’s driving abilities and this is for drivers of all ages.

It’s on the website, called Med 3. The reports are vetted. Sometimes drivers are called in for testing. Sometimes, like many other drivers with disabilities, they are given licenses with restrictions and they are many types:

Brubaker: Corrective lenses, driving during daylight only, driving within a specified radius of your home, prohibition of interstate driving.

Cole believes she is still a safe driver

Cole: I drive cautiously, slowly. I drive the speed limit. I double-check before I make any lane changes.

But she and her family monitor it closely.

Cole: The day will come when I can’t drive, but I’m just grateful that I am still doing well.  

Jessica Samet is a care consultant for the Alzheimer’s Association

Jessica Samet: It’s important to plan ahead.

And she says transportation is available.

Jessica Samet (Photo C. Fishburne)

Samet: Uber and Lyft would certainly be options. There are taxicab services and there are some here in town that really focus on older adults. That’s their primary clientele. The CARE van, Van Go and things like that and The Area Agency on Aging has a transportation service where they can help match people up.

But people with dementia and their families and friends will tell you that freedom is more than just transportation. It is also about understanding and acceptance and even appreciation of the sometimes unique contributions they can make. And Barb Cole still speaks to groups about dementia, driving herself and her message home.

Cole: Every day is a blessing. And you know, I wish I would have known that when I was 20, because I think my life would have been a lot less stressful. And if there is a word of wisdom to anybody out there: Just to remember it is not about things, it’s about people, it’s about love. And that brings happiness.”

For Virginia Currents, I’m Charles Fishburne, WCVE News.