Driving is a lifeline for Helen Rochford-Brennan, member of the European Working Group of People with Dementia


I am driving, while I still can. When I was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, it never occurred to me that I might not be able to drive. I was not told so at my diagnosis. However, at a follow up with my consultant, he informed me that I must tell the road safety authority and my insurer, and that I must take an assessment. I was in a state of shock, as the thought of not driving would depress me. Of course, I quickly did what was necessary. I think doing a road assessment is a particularly good idea. I am responsible citizen and I would not drive without doing the assessment though I often feel many of those I encounter driving should perhaps resit their tests! Driving is a lifeline for me as I live in a rural area with extremely limited public transport. During the COVID “cocooning” (lockdown), my late husband Sean and I planned to take a trip to Scotland to see some friends and for me to meet with my Alzheimer friends James, Agnes, and Nancy, but sadly we never got to take the trip. I had given it much thought and spoke to my son Martin who encouraged me to go, but first to ask my travel support Carmel Geoghegan if she would like to join me. Since my diagnosis, I had driven from Sligo here in the Northwest of Ireland to London England, therefore, I was not concerned about the drive to Scotland. I always tell myself, “either you can drive safely, or you cannot and when in doubt STOP.” Carmel was an amazing support in planning this trip with me. I love driving and Carmel only got to drive my car occasionally.

The GPS did not pick up closed streets in Edinburgh, which was a challenge, but Google maps on the phone sorted the route for us! We met a friend who participates in research and she was amazed I still drive, ten years after my diagnosis. It is upsetting to me that people still assume that we cannot drive, though from my many years of advocacy I do understand some of the reasons. Something I have heard over and over is “my partner told me not to”, or that side effects of medication prevent people from driving. Scotland was a joyful experience for me, meeting up with James McKillop and Agnes Houston in Glasgow, sightseeing in Edinburgh, which brought back great memories for me, and then driving to the Black Isle to see Nancy McAdam. They all have Alzheimer’s and are living such happy, productive lives, which encourages and inspires me. It was also an immense pleasure to have breakfast with Jim Pearson from Alzheimer Scotland and get the usual selfie! Another highlight of the trip was having afternoon tea with Chris Lynch from Alzheimer’s Disease International. Two hours of bliss and laughter! Chris is so full of knowledge about beautiful Edinburgh and its places of interest.

I have also just returned from my niece’s wedding in Calgary, Canada, where I also had the opportunity to drive. This was a new challenge, as it was the opposite side of the road. Over the years, I have been told driving is about long term memory, that it requires multiple cognitive functions such as attention, spatial awareness, and memory. It is also about where we are on our own dementia journey, as we are all different. As people with dementia, when taking trips, we should give ourselves lots of time, and on exceptionally long journeys take along someone for support if needed. We should also have an assessment annually and, if ever in doubt, reassess the situation, as safety of oneself and others is vital. Personally, I look forward to many more happy years of driving!