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Dementia may have played factor in tragic crash that killed one, left young mother in critical condition

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MORTON (HOI) - 79-year-old Wilburn Cole of Keokuk, Iowa was driving the wrong way on Interstate 155 outside of Morton when he struck another vehicle head-on and was killed. It happened Friday, February 7th.

Emma Ross of Tremont was driving the other vehicle. The 20-year-old new mother is still in the hospital in critical condition.

Now, a family member of the deceased said he was suffering from dementia and should not have been behind the wheel to begin with. Oliver Kah with the Alzheimer's Association Peoria Branch said driving can be an explosive issue between patients and families.

""Sometimes some people give it up easily, and sometimes it is hard because it's taking away somebody's independence," he explained. Kah said driving with dementia is common. It's not practical to take the keys away as soon as someone is diagnosed. He said many individuals can drive for years, albeit limited to familiar routes like to and from the grocery store.

Neurological Physician Julia Biernot said, "In general patients will not recognize there is a need to stop driving. Some do and some will say that it's time to stop." She explained that only 3% of 65-year-olds suffer from dementia. While that number jumps to 30% in those 85 and older. "While driving it's possible to become distracted and not notice things going on in traffic. It's possible for reaction time to slow as well. It's possible to have visual spacial processing problems and tell distances between cars," she said.

Occupational therapist Ginny Roehm works with aging adults to determine whether or not they are fit to drive. She uses a state of the art driving simulator, the only one downstate. "We're looking at how quickly are you recognizing the stop sign, are you staying in your lane and are you stopping within an adequate amount of time," she explained.

But as she explains, it's not always a black and white decision. "Sometimes people can do really well on the clinical evaluation, then they do really well on the simulator. But then we get out on the road and we end up in a ditch," explained Roehm.

The decision to give up driving is often a contested one. When a person doesn't have strong family support, Roehm said taking someone's independence can be tough.

"If we're telling someone it's not safe to drive anymore, sometimes we're being told 'I have no reason to live anymore."

Ginny Roehm, Occupational Therapist

In Cole's home state of Iowa, any person can request an individual be re-examined for fitness to drive. In Illinois, a medical Physician must file a recommendation the Secretary of State's Office in order for a driver's license to be revoked. They reported that 953 licenses were cancelled in 2019 due to medical reasons.

Doctor Julia Biernot said, "Physicians may report to the DMV, it's not mandated but it can be done if safety is a concern." A representative from the Secretary of State's Office said if they receive a recommendation from a physician, they revoke that individual's license that same day.

Kyle Beachy

Kyle Beachy is a Multimedia Journalist for 25 News and Heart of Illinois. Born and raised in Kokomo, Indiana, he attended Indiana Wesleyan University where he studied Education and played baseball. He comes to us from Columbus, Ohio where he received a Master’s Degree from The Ohio State University.

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