Many people with early onset Alzheimer's will still be working when they first experience the classic signs of short-term memory loss, poor judgment, getting lost with familiar places or not longer being able to perform tasks easily carried out in the past. In most cases of Alzheimer's we know that it is often up to two years before people seek medical assessment and intervention of their symptoms. But when symptoms directly affect a business and workplace performance, customers and fellow staff members, the pressure to seek help must change that.
Initially the symptoms of early onset Alzheimer's are often rationalized and ignored. There are many medical, psychological and social reasons that can account for short term memory loss, poor judgement, poor task performance. These include stress, heart and respiratory illnesses, neurological diseases and conditions and depression.
Denial is a common problem. It is common for men to ignore or dismiss the thought of illness and refuse a visit to a doctor. Stigma is another important reason why people avoid doctors' visits, especially if a diagnosis of a dementia such as Alzheimer's is suspected. Then again, many people often do not 'join the dots' and do not recognize the extent of their problems that their symptoms are having at work. It can be a difficult situation for bosses. How do you insist that they seek help without it being seen as coercive or bullying?
We recently heard from one person worried about issues of confidentiality. People are worried how seeking assessment or medical help and treatment will affect their job, social status, salary, health, life and travel insurance. It is impossible to underestimate the impact a diagnosis of Alzheimer's will make to a person's life and to their family.
It has already been identified that discrimination at work can be problematic and that we need policies and laws that prevent exploitation, discrimination and stigma. We do not want people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's being prematurely limited from activities such as driving or being able to continue taking part actively in workplace planning and not suffering early demotion.
Advice for People with Early Onset Alzheimer's at Work
- Carry on working as long as you, your employer and your doctor feel you are able to.
- Talk to your doctor and employer about leave of absence options if you feel you are not coping.
- Ask your employer for work options are available to you under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- Use memory aids to help you organize the details of your job, work commitments and use a day planner.
- If you are still finding jobs difficult in your current position ask for a role that suits your abilities and strengths better.
If you continue to find your job too difficult consider reducing your work hours and consider early retirement options.
Can Employers Help?
Rather than face humiliation and the stress of a dismissal, past valuable work and loyalty should mean that employers have some moral obligation to find work that is more suited to their current performance. Many employers are supportive especially if the person with early onset Alzheimer's is a long term employee.
When an employee is experiencing symptoms and is in denial, a compassionate manager or human resources professional might be able to encourage the employee to seek help through Employee Assistance Programs or their group health insurance.
As the number of elderly people increases globally and legislation increasingly favors the right to continue working beyond a fixed retirement age, the likelihood of seeing early onset Alzheimer's within the workplace will increase. This is something that small, medium and large businesses will have to address.
The Alzheimer's Association has information about the disease that will be helpful to an employer and other employees working with them. Contact your local chapter for more advice.
More Information on Legal Safeguards and Legislation Currently Available
U.S. Department of Labor
Labor Laws Employment Laws
American with Disabilities Act