I’ve seen the occasional sensational story about a car dealer selling someone who is cognitively impaired – think Alzheimer’s - a car, only to have family members march in and demand they take it back. But I thought it was rare. My AARP editor, though, knows six staffers who know someone with cognitive impairment who has managed to walk off with keys to a shiny new car.
How could this happen? Were the dealers licking their chops when they saw a confused “old guy” coming or did that old guy present himself as able-minded? Were the dealers duped?
I went cruising for more information and steered straight to the Alzheimer’s Association (AA). “In the early stage of Alzheimer’s, you can have wonderful people skills that remain intact for a long time,” says Ruth Drew, AA’s Director of Family and Information Services. “If someone comes into a dealership, is able to talk easily, seems sharp, has good long-term memory and a good credit history, why wouldn’t you sell them a car?”
A person with early stage Alzheimer’s may have many strengths that are still there but specific deficits that are profound, says Drew. If you don’t tap those deficits, it may not be obvious.
Driving is a big deal to everyone – whether they have dementia or not. A car gives people a sense of control and freedom. What’s more, “just because a person has a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s doesn’t mean they can’t drive,” says Drew. “At some point it might be unsafe to drive.”
There are three keys to the best outcome possible:
- Evaluating your loved one’s current abilities. What makes sense at this stage?
- Detecting the disease early
- Talking with them about what they can do when they’re no longer able to drive or handle their finances. (Some questions to ask may be “Should we make major purchases together?” or “Should we have someone else pay the bills or handle the investments?”). This is great advice for all older people.
For Drew, “buying a new car isn’t my number one worry. It’s that the person with Alzheimer’s might make disastrous decisions about their financial future, which is something much bigger than a car.” She knows many families who have gone bankrupt or lost their home because someone with Alzheimer’s has made poor choices. “Loss of judgment is a symptom of the disease, but the family didn’t realize it until it was too late,” says Drew.
Here’s something else to remember: If your parent, partner or you are age 65, Drew recommends getting screened for cognitive function at every annual physical exam. The sooner you know what you’re dealing with, the better you’ll do.
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