As our population ages, the number of people with dementia is increasing, and with people staying longer in the workforce, the impact of dementia is being felt in the workplace. Alzheimers New Zealand Chief Executive CATHERINE HALL explains how employers can provide practical support for those who are affected.

It is currently estimated that there are more than 60,000 people with dementia in New Zealand (1.3 percent of the population). As the New Zealand population continues to age, the number of people with dementia is expected to increase to nearly three percent of the total population by 2050.

What is dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a group of diseases that adversely affect peoples’ brains because of progressive damage to their brain cells. These changes impact on people differently, depending on what part of the brain is affected. They commonly involve changes in memory, thinking, behaviour, personality and emotions. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which often presents initially as a phase where cognitive difficulties are present but not severe. With our population ageing and people staying longer in the workforce before retirement, the impact of dementia is becoming an issue for employers, whether it’s employees affected by dementia themselves, or caring for loved ones with dementia.

It will be increasingly important for employers to adapt to the prevalence of dementia in the workforce. This involves both recognising the signs of dementia and developing strategies to assist people with dementia who are still employed. They will also need strategies in place to support the growing number of employees who may be caring for someone with dementia.

What are the early signs of dementia?

Any change in an employee’s attitude or ability to perform usual tasks is not normal and should be taken as a warning sign. There could, of course, be many explanations other than dementia for cognitive changes, including depression, medication side effects, stress, or illness. In a work context, you might observe people in the workplace who:

  • forget appointments or work deadlines
  • make poor or confused decisions
  • show signs of extreme fatigue
  • find it difficult to manage budgets and financial information
  • have difficulty managing familiar tasks
  • experience problems assimilating and storing information
  • show changes in personality or behaviour.

What can I do if I think an employee is showing signs of dementia?

There are some simple strategies that employers can put in place to assist employees with dementia. If you think someone in your workplace is showing signs of dementia, we encourage you to make use of existing HR policies and practices already in your organisation around the health and wellbeing of employees and those that support employees who are living with disabilities. It may also be useful to review your current policies to ensure they support people living with dementia in the same way as they support people living with disabilities arising from other conditions.

Can someone with dementia continue working?

A dementia diagnosis doesn’t mean a person can no longer work, but dementia is a progressive condition and over time it may impair a person’s ability to work. As time goes on, the person with dementia may need extra support or adjustments at work to continue in their role.

An employer who notices such changes in an employee might approach the person by asking about health issues or stresses and suggest they see their doctor for a check-up.

Getting a diagnosis of dementia does not mean that someone needs to give up work immediately, and earlier diagnosis and medication are helping some people with dementia to stay in work longer. Their ability to do that will depend on the type of work they do and on the support they receive in the workplace, but for most people this will also be a time to start planning for the future.

There are lots of ways to support an employee with dementia, but probably the most important is to keep an open mind and to be supportive of their needs. It is also the responsibility of the employer to actively promote an awareness of the rights and obligations around flexible working arrangements.

Examples of ways to support employees with dementia are:

Work content and practice

  • Provide support and guidance to an employee’s manager, to enable them to adjust how they manage a person with dementia.
  • Make an effort to match tasks with the best abilities of a person with dementia.
  • Ensure that work instructions given to a person with dementia are clear and easy to follow.
  • Provide good routines and structure – these help a person with dementia to navigate their work environment.
  • Encourage the use of memory aids in the workplace, such as electronic calendars and alerts, to-do lists, recording devices and other assistive technologies.
  • Provide additional or refresher training when required.
  • Provide a mentor or support person for the person with dementia.
  • Set regular catch-ups to monitor progress and maintain good communication.
  • Establish opportunities for redeployment when required.

Physical work space

  • Adjust the physical workplace so that it is dementia-friendly by:
    • limiting noise and distractions in the workplace as they can be very confusing for a person with dementia
    • limiting clutter in the workplace, thereby helping the person with dementia to remain focused
    • considering the provision of earplugs or earphones to help limit distractions in the work environment.

Providing support for those affected by dementia

How can I support those managing or working alongside people with dementia?

It is important to minimise the stigma of dementia by providing a supportive and inclusive environment. It can also be challenging for the colleagues or business associates of the person with dementia, and it’s important to support these people too. This might include things like:

  • awareness training about dementia
  • encouraging open conversations
  • providing information and resources on the intranet or in team emails.

How can I support an employee who is a carer of someone with dementia?

An employee whose work performance has altered might also be caring for a loved one with dementia and struggling to cope with conflicting demands at work and at home. Employees dealing with a loved one with dementia may:

  • receive frequent phone calls from them
  • need to accompany them to appointments – not only medical appointments but also legal, financial and other
  • experience increased worry and anxiety.

Employers can assist by learning about dementia, encouraging their employees to let them know if they are supporting someone with dementia, allowing flexible working hours, and simply being supportive – asking how things are going.

What can I do when someone is no longer able to carry out their work?

Dementia is a progressive neurodegenerative condition. When it becomes clear that an individual is no longer able to fulfil their role, there needs to be an open and honest discussion about this. The employee will require support to make decisions, and to have a conversation to explore any options and access to pensions and benefits advice.

At some point the person with dementia will need to stop work, and the transition is likely to be easier if that step has been planned for and does not seem hurried or rushed.

It could be that the employee with dementia decides to leave, or their continued employment is no longer sustainable. In both situations, it is important to use your existing policies or guidelines relating to supporting staff to retire from the workforce. It may be useful to review your current approaches to ensure they are dementia-friendly.

Becoming a dementia-friendly organisation

An important way that employers can prepare to support people with dementia is to become dementia-friendly employers. Alzheimers New Zealand has recently launched a programme working with businesses to help them become dementia-friendly. This encourages organisations to meet selected criteria across seven standards that form the dementia-friendly Recognition Programme.

Westpac New Zealand has become New Zealand’s first dementia-friendly bank, earning the Alzheimers New Zealand Dementia-friendly Award. Westpac CEO David McLean says creating a truly dementia-friendly environment goes beyond providing products and services that make it easier for people with dementia to manage their affairs. “Even something like simplifying a branch’s layout or décor can make a real difference to someone with dementia.”

Westpac has worked hard with the support of various experts in dementia to develop a nationwide dementia-friendly programme, which includes educating all employees on the signs and ways to help people with dementia. These are available for any other businesses to make use of on Westpac’s website www.westpac.co.nz.

Bupa Fergusson Retirement Village has also completed the process of becoming a dementia-friendly organisation, and four more employers are in the process of becoming accredited.

In summary, a best-practice employer will be considerate and respectful of an employee with dementia, promote flexible working arrangements and rights, ensure staff awareness of dementia, make adjustments to managing a person with dementia and their physical work environment and support the employee through their health transition.

Who do I contact for more support and advice?

If you’re worried that you or someone you know is showing signs of dementia, see your GP for a full assessment. For support and advice on dementia, please contact your local Alzheimer’s organisation on 0800 004 001. For more information about dementia, please visit the Alzheimers New Zealand website www.alzheimers.org.nz.

References:

About dementia: A guide for people diagnosed with dementia. Alzheimers New Zealand.

Dementia Economic Impact Report 2016. Alzheimers New Zealand.

How to identify, approach and assist employees with young onset dementia: A guide for employers. Alzheimers and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin.

Creating a dementia-friendly workplace: A practical guide for employers. Alzheimers Society UK.

This article was originally published in Employment Today and is republished with the kind permission of Alzheimers New Zealand.

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