Driving with Alzheimer’s: When does it become unsafe?

As the disease progresses, Alzheimer's patients will become more and more impaired

driving car generic

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – The story about an 81-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s who went missing sparked a lot of questions about how she was able to drive and get lost three hours away in West Virginia.

Pearl Frisk’s family reported her missing Tuesday after she didn’t show up to her granddaughter’s house in Hermitage. She ended up driving to Sistersville, West Virginia after she lost her way.

She was found safe overnight.

Dr. Carla Arlien, a neuropsychologist, says this isn’t rare for Alzheimer’s patients.

“The sense of time as the disease of Alzheimer’s progresses diminishes. So a person with Alzheimer’s is unaware of time, so they don’t even know that they’ve been gone that long.”

Frisk, in the initial stages of the disease, had recently been cleared to drive.

Alzheimer’s Disease has a slow decline on brain function. Arlien says in the beginning, patients experience short-term memory loss but can still remember directions and are safe to drive.

“When I do testing, I look at their reaction time, I look at ‘Can they carry out complex tasks, do they have attention problems?'”

As the disease progresses, they will become more and more impaired. When driving, they might miss the exit they take every day or get lost on the way to the grocery store.

Neurologist Dr. Carl Ansevin says it only becomes more dangerous.

“A person with Alzheimer’s who happens to be on the road may pull up to a stop sign and forget whether they looked both ways or not, pull out and hurt themselves, or even someone else.”

Arlien says Frisk might not have been able to determine, even by signs on the highway, which way she was going.

Both doctors say the majority of their patients who have gotten lost driving don’t remember they were lost by the time they are found or get back home.

Ansevin says he runs a series of tests each time his patient comes in, but it really comes down to the family members being honest with the doctors.

“The person puts a lot of pressure on the family and in order to take them out of the equation, it’s my job to tell them, ‘No, you should not drive.'”

He also thinks police should be more aware. Frisk reportedly asked a police officer for directions to get home, then he told her and sent her on her way.

“If you talk with them for just a little bit and you say, ‘Go back up the road to the thing you just passed,’ and they don’t remember passing, that’s a clue,” Ansevin said.

If someone is concerned about their family member driving, the American Occupational Therapy Association offers a search tool for a specialist that can evaluate their driving.

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