While some people with mild Alzheimer’s dementia may still be able to drive safely, people with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease are often not able to. As the disease progresses, memory, reaction and decision-making abilities of people afflicted with the disease decline.

The challenge lies in getting the person to stop driving once it has been assessed that they are no longer able to drive safely. Many individuals may not want to stop driving fearing it limits their independence, or they may not comprehend there is a problem with their ability to drive.

Dr Fatma Alkuwari, Sheikh Dr Mohammed Bin Hamad Al Thani and Dr Mani Chandran
Dr Fatma Alkuwari, Sheikh Dr Mohammed Bin Hamad Al Thani and Dr Mani Chandran

According to Sheikh Dr Mohammed Bin Hamad Al Thani, Director of Public Health Department at the Ministry of Public Health, everyone with dementia will eventually lose the ability to drive safely and although the time at which this happens will be different for each person, most drivers with Alzheimer’s disease stop within about three years of the first symptoms.

He said that people who have driven a car for most of their life often find it hard to give up driving in older age as they see it as a sign of growing more infirm with age and losing their independence.

As the Alzheimer’s dementia symptoms progress, patients can have behavioural and psychological symptoms associated with the condition, which can add to their distress and result in them not being able to drive safely and possibly being a danger to themselves and others.

However, people with any form of dementia are often not able to assess their deteriorating driving skills or the risks that they pose to themselves and to others when they are behind the wheel of a car. While it can be very difficult to discuss driving restrictions with an elderly relative or friend, it is important to do so early in the diagnosis.

There are different ways to approach this delicate subject, but all require the family members or caregivers to start the conversation with the individual. It might be helpful to involve a family doctor or geriatrician in the discussion to explain why it would be better for them to stop driving. Involving the individual in the decision making and finding a suitable alternative to them driving can be helpful.

Dr Mani Chandran, Geriatric Psychiatrist at Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC) who helps run the Memory Clinic, said they encourage people to visit a Memory Clinic in their primary health centre or Rumailah Hospital, where they can get a simple professional assessment. The Memory Clinic assesses the cognitive abilities of people who experience various symptoms associated with dementia.

Another option is to call the RAHA Alzheimer’s and Memory Services Helpline, which aims to provide confidential care for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, and support for their families. The helpline – 4026 2222 – included in the new services introduced for elderly patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, is available between 8 am and 3 pm from Sunday to Thursday.

Dementia is the term for a group of symptoms that occur when the brain is damaged by diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease or diseases of the blood vessels that can cause a stroke. These diseases can result in a significant decline in that person’s mental abilities or ‘cognitive function’, which affects their capacity to remember, concentrate, reason, and think clearly.

Dr Fatma Alkuwari, PM&R Program Director and Assistant Chairperson Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Department at Qatar Rehabilitation Institute, has been helping raise awareness of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias in Qatar and explained the importance of education.

Patients and their families who understand the symptoms and how they can manage them find it easier to cope with the condition.

Their aim, she said, is also to encourage people to adopt healthy lifestyle choices when they are younger to limit any negative impact of ageing. There is a lot that people can do earlier in life to help towards staying fitter, healthier, and happier later on in life.