Health & Medicine

Dementia turns familiar California freeway route into a daunting maze

It was time to put my dementia-challenged memory to the test a few weeks ago when driving home to Folsom from Santa Cruz, my childhood home. It is a trip I have made many times over several decades, so I wanted to see if I could rely on my memory instead of the car’s navigation system to get home.

I failed miserably. What should have been an under-three-hour trip took me more than seven hours.

In the old days the path from Santa Cruz to Sacramento was fairly simple. You’d take Highway 17 north to I-280 to I-80, where you’d turn right and be on your way to points east. Now there’s I-680, I-580, I-880, and a few more highways to further confuse the landscape.

My plan was to go the way I always go, staying east of San Francisco to avoid traffic, and I followed a couple of highway signs directing me to Sacramento. Or at least I thought I did, but something went wrong. At one point, I found myself far off course in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Bryant Street in downtown San Francisco headed towards the Bay Bridge. Then, closer to home, I forgot that Highway 50 was being funneled to one lane in the evening, which I could have easily avoided.

As a journalist, I occasionally boasted of having a “crack” memory that allowed me to remember quotations and facts without taking notes. Dementia has now put cracks in my memory that have expanded into full-scale holes.

I once prided myself on the ability to return to places I hadn’t visited in years, find the houses of friends in various cities, and revisit beautiful vistas or scenery from the past. Maps were kept in the glove compartment and were used mostly for planning travel to new locations because I always knew my way home or to places previously visited.

Flunking my memory test drive had its consequences, including an emphatic reminder of dementia’s reality. While I openly acknowledge my malady, and urge others to do so, I still privately suppress the certainty of my situation. Besides, I believe--rightly or wrongly medically--that giving the problem too much attention fosters its growth. So I mostly try to ignore it when I can.

Nevertheless, I am acutely aware of the precarious nature of my driving privileges that can be taken away by my neurologist with a single note to the Department of Motor Vehicles. I still feel comfortable driving, and realize the need to be more attentive than in years past because I know my focus isn’t what it once was.

My neurologist tests my reflexes and cognitive ability twice a year to ensure that I can still safely drive. So far, so good. Many others aren’t as fortunate, and some resist getting help for fear of losing their driving privileges in the process.

One reader who finally made arrangements to see a neurologist about cognitive difficulties she has experienced is seriously considering canceling her appointment. “I am hesitant,” she said. “On one side of the coin, it would be a relief to have a name for what I am going through. But on the flip side, I found out that I could lose my driver’s license over it.”

She also worries about the independence and financial implications a dementia diagnosis might trigger. “I am only 43 and terrified of the future,” she said.

A Fresno reader wrote that her husband lost his driving license the same day he was diagnosed with dementia. “It was another hard blow that day,” she said. “I try to stand back and let him do what he can on his own. It is hard to see these changes.”

These are just two of the readers who continue to share suggestions and examples of helpful practices. Another wished she had asked her mother more questions before losing her following nine years of cognitive decline. “I truly hope your family and pals take time to ask you questions: ‘How did you propose to mom?’ and ‘What are your still-remembered favorite things?’ There are so many questions I wish I could have had answered by Mom. Hers was an almost silent, long goodbye. I miss the Mom I remember.”

Several suggested that music can play a significant role in retaining and even refreshing memories. “Music triggers the part of the brain that holds our memories,” one reader wrote. “By listening to the music from our past, the memories associated with that time can be recalled.”

Another, who cared for his mother until she died with Alzheimer’s disease in March, wrote about how music helped both of them cope with their dire situation. “I cannot possibly emphasize how important music can be in holding it together later on. Every drive I took my Mom on, we sang along to the same songs, sometimes in different sequence, and sometimes different songs based on the season or holidays. But music helped hold us together.”

And several others said they employed photographs and videos to help dementia sufferers hold on to their past. “My dad, who is 96, is living with worsening dementia,” wrote a reader. “Although we have filled a digital frame with photos of past events, and he stares intently at them, for most of them he cannot remember the event, even when he is in the photo, except my mom's photo--when he sees the photo of their wedding, he says ‘There's the girl I married!’"

My wife, Barbara, put together a framed collage of photos from each of the many places we have lived, along with dates. I treasure it.

Kent Pollock is a retired journalist and journalism professor. He was formerly the assistant managing editor of The Sacramento Bee and editor of the Anchorage Daily News. Please share your perspectives, insights and comments with him at