Magazine article Workforce Management

When Alzheimer's Strikes

Magazine article Workforce Management

When Alzheimer's Strikes

Article excerpt


Karen Zimmerman, 52, had always tak- en pride in her career as an event and con- vention planner, first in the hotel industry and later for a labor union in Washington. She worked long hours in demanding situa- tions, but, she says, "It was very busy but enjoyable."

In 2007, though, she began to feel a bit anxious. "My supervisor started to treat me differently, but I didn't know why thai was," she says. "She tried to blame me for things." Because the supervisor had prickly relations with other employees, Zimmerman tried not to take it personally.

"But it got worse," she says. "I also had forgctfulness. I attributed it to menopause."

Her biggest fear was that she would be fired. "I was scared," she says. "I didn't know why it was happening."

She eventually went to her doctor, who could find nothing wrong but referred her to a neurologist. After undergoing a series of tests, she waited nearly a month for the results. "I thought I'd get another pill and move on my way," she says. "But they told me I had early-onset Alzheimer's and that that would be my last day of work." The neurologist believed the stress of her job, including severe insomnia, was too much for her to handle.

Zimmerman is one of an estimated 500,000 people younger than 65 in the U.S. who have early-onset Alzheimer's dis- ease or other dementia. Many, perhaps most, are still working - no one knows. Em- ployees can often manage their symptoms in the early stages of the disease. If they do go to their doctor with concerns, they may still be in the dark. Two-thirds of primary care physicians misdiagnose the disease in their younger patients, according to a study conducted for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

As the workforce ages, the number of people working with early symptoms of dementia is likely to grow. Many large corporations hope to hold on to skilled employees past traditional retirement age. While most older employees are likely to be healthy, two out of every 100 people 65 to 74 years old have Alzheimer's disease.

"It is a growing area of concern," says Ron Finch, vice president of the National Business Group on Health. "There is not a sufficient cohort of younger workers to meet the demand of many employers- especially engineers, scientists and those with real technical expertise. Employers will want to do everything they can to make sure employees can be productive and stay on the job."

Alzheimer's is a slowly progressing, terminal disease of unknown cause. There is no cure. While aging boomers joke nervously about having Alzheimer's when they forget a name, early signs of dementia go beyond memory loss. People may have difficulty performing familiar tasks, communicating and thinking abstractly. They become disoriented in time or space. In addition to Alzheimer's, other conditions, such as frontal temporal dementia, lead to personality changes, with people losing social graces and becoming obsessive or apathetic.

"Those are the kinds of behaviors that really get people in trouble at work and at home," says neuropsychologist Glenn Smith of the Mayo Clinic.

Employers and employees alike have had little understanding about earlyonset Alzheimer's. "There is a growing recognition that this is a problem," says Randall Abbott, senior consultant with Watson Wyatt Worldwide in Boston, who advises Fortune 1,000 companies. "It is something that employers are trying to be more sensitive to, and also trying to alert their supervisors as to how to be on the lookout for some of the early signs. This is a very delicate balance. There's enormous value to getting the person to a doctor, but you don't want to walk around the workplace and accuse people of having Alzheimer's. …

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