In the driving seat with Parkinson's

Alayne is a self-confessed car fanatic. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s 10 years ago, she recently attained the highest standard of civilian driving in the country. Here, she shares her story. 

“My arm wasn’t swinging the way it should and I had to really think about moving it,” Alayne remembers as she explains how she first thought something wasn’t quite right.

She put it to the back of her mind, but then other people began to notice. “I used to do a lot of running and one day my husband, Mac, asked, ‘What’s wrong with your arm?’” 

Alayne also began noticing other issues too. “I was a police officer at the time, working as a custody sergeant. My handwriting was becoming atrocious and writing custody records became more and more difficult. It came to a head after a difficult shift when I’d had to restrain someone who had been brought into custody. Afterwards, I was shaking very badly and just thought, ‘What is going on?’”

Soon after she visited her GP and was referred to the neurologist she still sees today. “After a series of tests, he asked me what I knew about Parkinson’s and I told him it was a condition old people get,” explains Alayne.

“He replied that that’s not always the case and that he thought I had Parkinson’s. My first thought was literally ‘Holy crap!’ And then I thought he must have it wrong and it was something else entirely. I was 47.” 

I’ve always been a petrolhead. Mac, my husband, is...a member of our local Institute of Advanced Motorists group, so I thought, ‘Well if you can’t beat them, join them!’

A change of direction

After receiving her diagnosis, Alayne spoke to her bosses and it was agreed she would step back from operational duties.

“My superior officers were very supportive. But moving away from front line duties coincided with government cuts in police numbers. I didn’t necessarily want to leave the force, but I didn’t really like the way the organisation was going, so I took my pension and retired after 26 and a half years of service.” 

Now working part-time as a doctor’s receptionist – a job she absolutely loves – she found she had more time on her hands to pursue other interests.

“I’ve always been a petrolhead and when I first joined the police I was in the road traffic unit. Mac is a very good driver and a member of our local IAM RoadSmart group, so I thought, ‘Well if you can’t beat them, join them!’” 

Sometimes I would cover up to 100 miles in a session. I’d be completely exhausted by the end of it.

Flying colours

Alayne achieved the highest pass level you can get in her Advance driving test and then set her sights on getting her Masters, the highest-level civilian driving qualification in the UK.

“I wanted to do it as soon as I’d got my advance qualification before I lost the skills I’d gained during that training. I also didn’t know how my Parkinson’s would progress and impact me if I waited.”

Building on her skills as an advanced road user, Alayne admits the training was tough: “Sometimes I would cover up to 100 miles in a session. During a drive you are anticipating what’s ahead of you, reacting to situations and constantly adjusting your speed and position on the road depending on conditions and other road users. I’d be completely exhausted by the end of it.”

Parkinson’s presented it’s own challenges too, as Alayne explains: “I take my medication every four hours, so would take a tablet just before the start of a session and that largely worked out well for a drive that might take up to two and a half hours."

"The big issue I had physically though was my right foot. It can get very dyskinetic, and trying to keep it still enough to make sure the ride was smooth could be difficult. I began wearing heavy, tight-fitting walking shoes during drives as that gave me more control.”

I’m not a naval gazing kind of person. So with Parkinson’s, my attitude was that it is what it is – crack on.

Getting on with it

“Completing the course was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I would go through periods of doubt, not knowing whether I could do it. But then Mac would say, ‘Of course it’s hard, but if it was easy, everyone would do it,’” she recalls.

Nobody in the programme knew Alayne has Parkinson’s – she let her driving speak for itself, and it was only after she passed with a distinction, that Mac shared the news with the group.

Alayne looks back at the last decade with pragmatism: “I’m not a naval gazing kind of person. So with Parkinson’s, my attitude was that it is what it is – crack on.” But when it comes to her driving achievements, she did more than crack on and her sense of achievement is palpable as she laughs, “I bloody did it!” 

Find out more about driving and Parkinson's.