Alzheimer's On the Rise

As employees put off retirement, the ranks of those suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's disease will likely grow. Yet most HR leaders have failed to prepare their organizations for this eventuality.

Friday, November 4, 2011
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Employees at a law firm were noticing some disturbing changes in the behavior of their co-worker, a 56-year-old executive secretary who'd been at the firm for 30 years. Sometimes she'd forget how to send an email or save a document on her computer. Other times, she'd arrive in the office and introduce herself to long-time colleagues as if they'd just met.

When her supervisor tried to discuss the issue with her, the secretary clammed up and became very anxious. The firm's HR department turned to its employee-assistance program provider for help.

The provider, New York-based Harris, Rothenberg International, says requests like that are becoming increasingly common: Calls to HRI from managers and HR departments dealing with employees suffering from Alzheimer's disease and/or dementia have gone up by 100 percent since 2009, although it declined to provide actual numbers.

It's a trend that will continue to grow as tens of millions of baby boomers turn 65 this year and next, and continue working because they can't afford retirement, says Randy Martin, HRI's director of clinical services. More than 5.4 million older Americans have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and that number is "growing by leaps and bounds," he says.

"We are seeing more adults who are employed and past the age of retirement remain in the workplace because of their economic situation," says Martin. These growing numbers ensure that most companies will, at some point, be forced to deal with employees suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's or dementia, which is often caused by Alzheimer's.

Companies are also seeing concurrent growth in the number of employees who are caregivers to parents or relatives with Alzheimer's, particularly members of the so-called "sandwich generation," who are simultaneously caring for both children and aging parents.

"We've definitely seen a rise in the number of requests for help from people who are caregivers to aging family members," says Jennifer Piliero, senior product manager at Minneapolis-based Ceridian, which provides EAP services.

Nearly 10 million adult children over the age of 50 care for their aging parents, according to a study released this June by MetLife's Mature Market Institute -- a number that has tripled since 1994.

More than 60 percent of these caregivers are women, many of whom suffer from depression or other health ailments at least partially brought on by the stress of caregiving while trying to earn a living, according to the MMI study.

It's a double-whammy that HR leaders must be prepared to deal with, says Paula Pelissero, senior director of human resources at the Chicago-based Alzheimer's Association. Organizations must ensure that employees who may be suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's be treated with sensitivity and respect (not least to avoid running afoul of the relevant laws), while offering support to the growing number of employees who are caregivers to those with Alzheimer's.

And many employers are falling short, she says.

"I don't want to turn on my HR brethren here, but we know that caregivers need a little bit of flexibility in their lives, and yet surveys from the [Society for Human Resource Management] and other sources show that large companies have cut back on flexible-working options during the last five years," says Pelissero. 

Working parents generally have more workplace support than caregivers of aging adults do, she says.

Benefits packages often include access to childcare support or on-site daycare, but little in the way of support or services for caregivers of adults, who must often arrive to work later in the day and/or leave earlier because of their responsibilities. Such caregivers also often don't have much free time to seek out support groups.

Pelissero urges HR leaders to evaluate their organization's employee-benefits packages for "balance" -- if there are a host of offerings related to childcare resources and nothing for caregivers to aging adults, and the average age of your employees is 40 and above, "you're not meeting the needs of your workforce."

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Gary Small, professor of psychiatry at the University of California-Los Angeles, says the potential onset of Alzheimer's is one more reason organizations should offer wellness programs.

"We've calculated that if everyone in the United States adopted one healthy-brain lifestyle habit, like eating fish once a week or taking a daily 15-minute walk, the anticipated number of Alzheimer's cases within the next five years would be reduced by one million," says Small, who's also the director of UCLA's Longevity Center and author of a forthcoming book, The Alzheimer's Prevention Program: Keep Your Brain Healthy for the Rest of Your Life

Memory exercises, such as those are available on his organization's website, are also helpful in warding off the disease.

"There's a big misconception that you absolutely can't prevent Alzheimer's," he says. "While it's true there's currently no cure, the scientific evidence is compelling that we have more control over it than we think."

In the situation at the law firm, where it apparently had surfaced, counselors from HRI spoke with the secretary and reached out to her family members, who were able to convince her to be professionally evaluated.

Once a diagnosis confirmed she was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's, the woman was placed on disability leave and was eventually able to retire early with full benefits.

Small notes, however, that a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's doesn't necessarily mean an employee no longer can work.

"They can segue into less-demanding roles; they may still have lots of skills and knowledge their company can benefit from," he says.

Most importantly, says HRI's Martin, managers and HR professionals must never attempt to "diagnose" an employee who may be suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's.

"Approach the person with caution and respect, and try and refer them to the EAP," he says. "It is not your role to play armchair psychiatrist." 

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