Helping people with Parkinson’s drive longer and safer

Liliana Alvarez
Assistant Professor
Western University

Stopping driving is a major blow to the independence of people with Parkinson’s disease. At Western University, Professors Liliana Alvarez and Jeffrey Holmes test the effectiveness of car warning systems that beep or flash flights if a car is in the driver’s blind spot when they switch lanes. If they confirm this existing technology could help people with Parkinson’s, or can modify the lane-changing aids to be more effective, the recommendations would help people keep driving and stay independent longer.

Driving is key to keeping people independent and healthy. For people with Parkinson’s, including many who are diagnosed with the early-onset form of the disease, having to stop driving drastically affects their quality of life.

“Having a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease does not mean you are unfit to drive,” says Liliana Alvarez, an assistant professor at Western University. “People with mild to moderate Parkinson’s may have years of safe driving ahead of them. But as the disease progresses, adequate supports need to be put into place to avoid them having any issues with their driving.”

Alvarez and her team have already determined that switching lanes is a critical error on driving tests and a cause of accidents for people with Parkinson’s, because the task requires people to process several pieces of information and make quick decisions.

Now they are using a driving simulator to test the effectiveness of technology already available in some vehicle models that signals when another car is in a driver’s blind spot when they shift lanes.

They want to see if the blinking lights or warning sounds that the blind spot technology uses will help—or further distract—drivers with Parkinson’s. Their research is made possible through a one-year $43,065 Pilot Project Grant funded by Garden Centre Group Co-Op Corp (GCGCC) through the Parkinson Canada Research Program.

Participants in this pilot project will use the simulator to “drive” a route that has been designed to challenge their lane-changing ability, with the help of this new technology.

If the technology and training on how to use it helps people with Parkinson’s, Alvarez will develop recommendations so doctors can provide concrete supports to help people continue to drive and stay independent.

When Alvarez practised as an occupational therapist, not having more strategies to help people with Parkinson’s live more independently frustrated her. That’s why her research aims to make a practical difference.

“For people with Parkinson’s disease and their caregivers, driving is a key determinant of quality of life. They feel they are still active because they can go places and make decisions about how they are going to use their own time,” she says.

With more and more people being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, including one of Alvarez’s family members, “we haven’t done enough in terms of intervention,” she says.

She hopes their work will make a difference, and set the stage for a larger clinical trial eventually.

“Parkinson Canada is really setting a precedent in terms of funding research that is going to help people with Parkinson’s disease live well today,” Alvarez says.

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