Avoid Assumptions About Alzheimer’s

By Pamela Babcock Oct 28, 2009

As a product marketing manager for technology firm LSI Corp., John McClelland needed to understand the intricacies of software design and to have the ability to build and maintain relationships with business partners and potential customers.

That became a problem in 2007, when McClelland, then 55, began introducing himself to people he had previously met and repeating himself in meetings. His job performance faltered and caused serious concern around the office.

“I was actually going overboard to keep on top of things, and it was steadily getting worse,” recalled McClelland, who lives in Woodland Park, Colo. “All of a sudden on a call, I’d change the name of the person I was dealing with. And my recognition memory went out the door.”

One day, McClelland was supposed to pick up a co-worker at the Colorado Springs office. He pulled into the parking lot and recalled seeing “some guy standing at the curb—not the guy I was looking for.” As McClelland walked by, the perplexed co-worker—whom he worked with almost daily—asked, “John, where are you going?” and McClelland replied, “I have to go find Jim for this call.”

McClelland began thinking “either I’m nuts or there’s something happening” and quickly made an appointment with his doctor.

Experts say incidents of Alzheimer’s in the workplace will only increase with more people trying to work longer.

“In the next decade, we can expect a three-fold increase in the number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and it will touch all elements of the workplace,” said Peter W. Ham, a Boston-area licensed mental health counselor who works closely with the Massachusetts/New Hampshire chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.

The prevalence of Alzheimer's is expected to grow from the current 5.3 million people in the U.S. to 16 million by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association in Chicago.

What It Is

Alzheimer’s – the most common form of dementia – is a progressive and fatal brain disease for which there is no current cure. According to the Alzheimer's Association:

  • One in six women and one in 10 men age 55 and older can expect to develop Alzheimer's disease. (Figures for women are higher largely because women live longer than men.)
  • Of the 5.3 million people in the U.S. living with the disease, about 200,000 to 500,000 are under age 65.
  • Alzheimer’s disease is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S.
  • The direct and indirect costs of Alzheimer's and other dementia to Medicare, Medicaid and businesses top $148 billion annually.

Understanding the Signs

The Alzheimer's Association web site includes a list of 10 warning signs for the disease, which can be used to begin the process of detection and intervention.

“The key with these signs is to recognize a change” because Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease that attacks all parts of the brain and will impact physical, social, functional, communication, perceptual, behavioral and emotional areas of a person’s life, Ham said.

But the Alzheimer’s Association says there’s a difference between behavior exhibited by those with Alzheimer’s and those who have “typical age-related changes” such as occasionally losing things or forgetting which day it is. Signs of Alzheimer’s include:

  • Poor judgment and decision-making.
  • Inability to manage a budget.
  • Losing track of the date or not knowing the season.
  • Difficulty having a conversation.
  • Misplacing things and being unable to retrace steps to find them.

Few Ask for Help

Ninah Kessler, director of the memory program at Sparks of Genius Brain Optimization Center in Boca Raton, Fla. does cognitive training for people with early stage Alzheimer’s. Kessler said that because an employee with Alzheimer’s is likely to have poor judgment, “it is not likely that they will ask for help” and they might be “afraid and embarrassed.”

“There’s just a lot of generalized fear about memory loss and what will happen to people,” said Kessler, who is a licensed clinical social worker. “The employer needs to respect the employee’s dignity and privacy.”

McClelland knew Alzheimer’s warning signs: His grandfather, mother and mother’s brother died of the disease.

His diagnosis came after four months of tests, including an MRI, PET scan, blood work, genetic testing and neuropsychologist and neurologist visits. In addition to giving up his career, McClelland stopped being a volunteer firefighter when he could no longer describe conditions he had witnessed clearly.

McClelland said his former employer was supportive. In the beginning, he spoke with his manager about limiting travel and making sure a co-worker was with him on trips. Alzheimer’s disease eventually claimed his job. When he got his final diagnosis, McClelland went on short-term disability; he transitioned to long-term disability after a year.

Today, McClelland volunteers as an early stage advisor with the Alzheimer’s Association nationally and with the Colorado Chapter, where he works to raise awareness of the disease.

“I’m still fairly articulate right now, but I know I won’t be forever, by any means,” he said. His advice for anyone who thinks they might have Alzheimer’s? “You need to push your way through a medical diagnosis process. The reality is that most people end up leaving a job— getting fired or laid off—because they don’t go in and get a diagnosis.”

One Attorney’s Advice

Damon Kitchen, a partner with Constangy, Brooks & Smith in Jacksonville, Fla., said organizations should “train managers and supervisors to look at objective criteria, not age or perceived physical and mental impairments."

For example, he said, employers having problems with older workers should measure employees “objectively using verifiable performance/production criteria.” In other words, treat all workers the same irrespective of age and potential physical or mental impairments. “Doing otherwise not only exposes a company to potential age claims but to disability claims as well,” Kitchen said.

But if an employer suspects evidence of Alzheimer's or dementia in the workplace that is affecting performance, productivity or employee conduct, an employer need not avoid the issue, Kitchen said.

“HR and employment counsel should be consulted on a case-by-case basis,” Kitchen said. And the employer will likely need to assess whether an employee is capable of performing the essential functions of his or her job, with or without a reasonable accommodation. “This will typically involve an interactive process whereby the employer and the employee discuss the employee's medical condition and ability to perform his or her job.”

Other Steps to Consider

The Alzheimer's Early Detection Alliance works with companies to educate employees on the disease and importance of brain health. Ham suggested that organizations consider taking these steps in dealing with employees who could have Alzheimer’s disease:

  • Create a guideline/policy. “Addressing the issue allows for early intervention to appropriately diagnose the etiology of the symptoms [because] many times there are other factors that are masking the symptoms of a dementing illness which are reversible,” Ham said.
  • Engage resources such as the Alzheimer's Association and a recognized consultant for guidance.
  • Encourage employees to contact their primary care physician to address work-related behavioral changes.

*Consider sending HR or department head staff to educational seminars offered through the local Alzheimer's Association or host an information session for employees to help break down barriers and stereotypes.

“Getting older and grey hair does not mean that someone will be diagnosed with Alzheimer's—it is an illness that is abnormal in the aging process,” Ham said. “The worst possible option is to do nothing.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect