What do we all live in fear of?
In the last two weeks two of my friends have had their driving license revoked by the DVLA.
One seems to be because she completed the form incorrectly – not just that she was too honest, but she actually forgot to complete a couple of questions. The other person I’m not sure about, but I am sure he’s not happy.
What is this with driving? The good old public seem to think that if you are diagnosed you cannot be able to drive safely. And some doctors do too.
But it really does not follow.
Think on. I got diagnosed early in my disease. I could then and do now drive safely.
Someone else might be diagnosed late, well after they were unsafe driving and should have stopped.
Others (33%) will not be diagnosed at all. But still drive on. Probably why they avoid diagnosis.
What does losing your licence mean to you?
Losing your self control and autonomy.
Losing social engagement because you are stuck at home. Especially in the countryside.
Losing a skill and capability which you’ve had probably since we were 17.
I remember when I passed my driving test at 17 it was a powerful rite of passage. I hadn’t even left school and yet I was allowed to drive my parents’ car. Fantastic. I went back to school feeling so grown-up.
So when we get dementia and it begins to affect our ability to drive it is again a huge rite of passage. But a pretty awful one.
If, like me, you live in a rural area, you depend upon the car, whether it’s driven by you or someone else. The nearest bus for me is a 3 mile walk and it’s every hour if you’re lucky, if they stop at all. If I had to, for example, get to a hospital appointment in Shrewsbury without a car that would be best part of the day taken up.
And the last time I tried to get a taxi to the station in the morning, there was none available. They were all booked for daily school runs.
That’s just the transactional business of day-to-day life.
But there’s also the need to live independently. To take my dog for a walk wherever and whenever I choose. To go and visit the sea for a day. To visit my son a few miles down the road. And to just get away from home for that matter.
I know there are some circumstances where people with dementia refuse to acknowledge, accept and understand that they have a disease and continue to drive beyond when they’re safe. We all know people who do that. But almost everybody I know knows when they’re safe and when they’re not. They know when, for example, to stop driving at night. They know when to stop driving long distances.
I know one guy who a few months ago had his license revoked by the DVLA on the request of his doctor. He went into a GP appointment and dropped a piece of paper he had taken in with him, and when he got up to leave the GP asked if it was his piece of paper. He said no. The GP immediately decided he was incapable of driving.
Is that really something that should stop you driving?
If the GP understood and knew the whole person in front of him, and had a proper conversation, then a that wouldn’t have happened. In this case it was a locum GP who had never met this guy before.
As it happens three months later he applied for and passed a driving test to get his license back. The assessor said he was fine and he got to drive home on his own.
So what are the things that we might have difficulties with?
Judging distances. This is a classic which people often refer to. One person forgot to slow down for roundabouts because he didn’t realise he was so close, and knew it was time to stop (driving and the car).
Some people talk about difficulties in finding their way and getting lost. This, I think, is one of the questions on the DVLA relicensing set of documents that I complete every year. (Page after page of repetition, head scratching, calendar searching…)
I ask you, who has not got lost? Who has never got lost when driving, especially in a place they don’t know?
As with all these types of formal procedures and screenings, if you actually answer every question absolutely truthfully you will fail. So of course you say: no, I do not get lost. I never get confused.
Another possible effect of dementia is to reduce your ability to concentrate so you look around a bit more than you might otherwise do. You know what I mean, driving along, you see something interesting, maybe a buzzard floating along above you, or a harvesting combine. And your attention wonders. Perhaps a little too far. Again, I ask, does this not happen to everybody? Or is it my imagination? Is it just me that does this?
We need to recognise that people have their ways of coping. So if I’m driving in a place I don’t know, perhaps abroad or a place I have not been for a long time, I turn off the radio. If I have anybody in the car with me, I ask them to be quiet or alternatively rely on them to tell me where to go. Although, my God, that usually causes chaos.
If you have satnav, use it.
I read only this morning that there are people who come to rely on the satnav (or Alexa?) for friendship, and grow to love the lady who talks to them. She’s so kind and gentle. So much better than your spouse! She never tells you off in a nasty way.
“Find the next opportunity to turn around.”
“Recalculating”...because of your stupidity and inability to follow my simple directions!
I think it is sometimes daunting trying to read roadsigns where there are multiple directions that you can take. And I except that dementia can slow your processes down sufficiently to make it difficult to make the right choices quickly enough. But in my experience, people like me learn to drive more slowly than they used to, to allow time to make choices. And if I’m unsure I’ll find somewhere to pull over. So I can check where I should be going.
But there are other things that are making driving more difficult for everyone. Road layouts are becoming more complex as traffic calming measures are introduced. Huge roundabouts are springing up with multiple traffic light systems, multiple lanes and lines, and even raised lane dividers. It is becoming quite difficult in some places to be able to navigate these roundabouts, where sometimes you have to change the lane when you’re actually going round the roundabout in order to stay to end up in the right lane to come off the roundabout again.
A5-London Road roundabout, Shrewsbury, folks. Watch out. Road planners take a bow.
There is another roundabout in Shrewsbury with five exits, where I took my children to learn to drive. We went round and round and round.
And again, who has never got into the wrong lane at an unfamiliar roundabout, and then caused chaos getting out again? It’s not dementia. It’s being human.
So, what I’m trying to say is, let’s not just make the usual stereotypical assumptions that somebody who gets a diagnosis of dementia all of a sudden cannot drive. Luckily many people don’t make that assumption, but there are many who do.
Frankly, I would like to see a driving re-test at 65, and every five years thereafter, because I reckon there’s a heck of a lot of people who don’t have a diagnosis of dementia but who actually do not drive safely.
Equally, we tend to drive a lot slower when we get older, realising that there is no great hurry to get to the other end. We learn at last that speed does not equal size of ego…or anything else.
I suppose, when it comes to it, driverless cars would be our blessing. Get your diagnosis of dementia, and get a motability driverless car. Fantastic.
Alternatively, the government could it could make it a lot easier and more financially worthwhile getting access to some benefits to allow you to hire taxis. Because where I live that’s all there is to rely on if you haven’t got a car or someone to drive for you.