New research program helping older Australians navigate car-free life

Women getting out of a carA big part of what the Dementia Australia Research Foundation does, in addition to offering funding grants to early-career dementia researchers, is supporting existing research through offering advice and expertise, promotion and the recruitment of volunteers.

One such project is CarFreeMe, which recognises that for many older Australians, and particularly those with dementia, relinquishing their driver’s licence is a pivotal and potentially overwhelming event.

The decision to hand over the car keys can prove difficult, leaving many feeling as if they have lost their independence. It also presents a challenge to primary carers and GPs – often tasked with delivering the difficult news.

Dr Theresa Scott, NHMRC-ARC Research Development Fellow at the University of Queensland, is working with a research team to develop CarFreeMe – a program that will provide practical and emotional support for those advised they should stop driving.

Dr Scott has found that timing is everything when it comes to relinquishing a driver’s licence.

“The transition to non-driving comes at significant personal cost, including increased risk of depression, anxiety, loneliness and isolation, identity loss, and grief. As symptoms of dementia progress, people lose insight into their driving ability and how it may affect others. Therefore, the ideal situation is for voluntary and gradual driving cessation,” notes Dr Scott.

“Changes to driving status not only impact the individual stopping driving but also their family members supporting them. Often people are less upset with the process if they come to the conclusion themselves earlier rather than later.”

With trials currently underway, CarFreeMe is an evidence-based approach to supporting people living with dementia who are adjusting to life without driving. It is focused on the emotional and practical issues. CarFreeMe participants collaborate with a trained health professional, one-to-one and in small group sessions, to develop tailored solutions to individual needs based on their location and access to alternative forms of transport.

In addition to the trials underway in Queensland, Dr Scott’s team is developing a telehealth resource for general practitioners, primary carers and health professionals to manage this significant change.

Dr Scott hopes that this resource will be particularly helpful for general practitioners in rural and remote areas, where transport options are limited, and practitioners have often developed a relationship with patients over a significant period. In these instances, delivering the news that a patient can no longer drive can have long-term care implications, fundamentally changing the relationship and sometimes resulting in patients seeking care elsewhere.

“Clearly this is upsetting and damages the doctor-patient relationship,” says Dr Scott.
Ultimately, the CarFreeMe program and resources aim to involve families and carers in the intervention process, resulting in better outcomes for people with dementia.

“This resource will help people realise they have a life outside of driving. It was developed with input from people who have experienced driving cessation and what they said they needed to adjust and remain active and connected to their community.”

The CarFreeMe program is currently being trialed in Queensland and the ACT. If you would like further information or to participate, please visit dementia.org.au/research/participate/study/living-with-dementia-and-driving