The prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease is at an epidemic level and its impact extends far beyond the individual diagnosed with the disease.
Once thought to primarily inflict those over 65, or retirement age, younger individuals in the workforce can also experience Alzheimer’s disease symptoms.
For every individual living with Alzheimer’s, currently estimated at 5.4 million, three times that many, 15 million, serve as their unpaid caregivers. In Arkansas, nearly 60,000 people are known to have the disease while over 200,000 family and loved ones serve as their caregivers. The burgeoning nature of this disease stands to significantly impact the country’s workforce and the economy.
With a growing number of people in the workforce remaining in a job beyond the age of 65, there is an increasing likelihood that employers will witness employees who exhibit one or more symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s disease. An aging workforce, coupled with the fact that the “Baby Boomers” are entering the age of increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease, makes the probability of seeing signs of the disease in the workforce even greater.
Those in their 60s aren’t the only ones who employers might see showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Many people with Younger Onset Alzheimer’s show signs in their 40s and 50s. They have families, careers or are even caregivers themselves when Alzheimer's disease strikes. In the United States, it is estimated that approximately 200,000 people have younger onset Alzheimer’s. Since health care providers generally don't look for Alzheimer's disease in younger people, getting an accurate diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's can be a long and frustrating process. Symptoms may be incorrectly attributed to stress or there may be conflicting diagnoses from different health care professionals.
For someone like Lisa Klusmeier, an area resident, this is all too familiar. Unknown to her, Lisa’s husband Walt began having challenges at work that impacted his performance. He had a career in biotechnology sales that spanned 24 years. Walt and Lisa enjoyed a wonderful life with their three children and had just finished building their “dream home” when life took a very startling turn.
Walt began having trouble executing aspects of his job. In response, Walt’s managers began micromanaging his performance, asking him to undergo frequent oral performance reviews. He could not comply with the demands of his managers and he was unable to verbalize why. Without warning, Walt quit his job. Lisa had no idea he was having difficulty at work. When she tried asking his employer for information, the company was unable to share any information due to employee protection laws.
Walt was 53 years old. The Klusmeier family was left without an income, without insurance, and without answers. Had the employer had some level of understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, it is possible that he could have been helped into a diagnosis with the benefit of medical and long-term disability insurance. After caring for Walt at home as long as possible, Lisa moved him to a memory care assisted living facility. He lived there for 2 months until his passing in the care of hospice. Walt died at the age of 58, leaving a wife and three children ages 24, 19 and 18.
Employees exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s is only one way the disease impacts the workforce. Much of the unpaid care for adults with Alzheimer’s disease is falling to an adult child who is still in the workforce, growing what is known as the “Sandwich Generation.” A number of people in the workforce are forced to balance work with their caregiving responsibilities. These responsibilities are for not only their own children but also for their aging parents.
Caring for a parent with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis can have a tremendous impact on the workforce. For some it means that after a full work day, another full “shift” awaits that includes bathing, feeding, and tending to safety needs of a parent, and this often results in very little sleep for the caregiver. For others with a parent who lives elsewhere, it can mean distraction and worry during work hours, and this results in decreased performance and lower productivity.
Other impacts include tardiness, absenteeism, and even employees being forced to leave the workplace. Over 2,000 companies across the country have stepped up as leaders to support their employees and fight against Alzheimer’s disease by joining the Alzheimer’s Workplace Alliance.
As Alzheimer’s Workplace Alliance (AWA) Corporate Champions, they support their employees, customers, members and other stakeholders with resources, tools and information on Alzheimer's disease, the nation's sixth-leading cause of death. This Alliance, made possible by the Alzheimer's Association, aims to raise awareness of the disease and importance of early detection while providing help to those who are balancing work and caregiving responsibilities.
By Susan Neyman
Susan Neyman, Executive Director Alzheimer's Association, Arkansas Chapter