Dementia - the ticking time-bomb facing workplaces?

by Victoria Bruce18 Mar 2016
Australian workplaces are facing a ticking time bomb as the prevalence of dementia is on the rise.

Advocacy group Alzheimer’s Australia says almost one in ten people over the age of 65 have some form of dementia.

Younger Onset Dementia can also people aged in their 30’s, 40’s or 50’s, many of whom may still be in full employment at the time of the diagnosis, with the latest statistics showing that younger onset dementia – affecting people under the age of 65 - affects approximately 25,100 Australians.

And while the country’s population ages and the bar for retirement is pushed back, HR professionals need to be aware of the subtle signs of cognitive decline in their workplace and have strategies in place to assist employees who diagnose with dementia.

The implication for HR and businesses is immense says Alzheimer’s Australia CEO Carol Bennett .

People are living longer, therefore they will have to work longer to be able to afford to retire, which is going to require workplaces and employers to adapt to an ageing workforce,” Bennett told HC Online.

However, workplaces can put in place some simple strategies to assist employees with dementia to manage their roles in the workforce, says Associate Professor Lee-Fay Low from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Health Sciences.

“Common problems include memory, organisation and planning and motivation,” Low told HC Online.

She says helpful strategies to solve trouble with reading or writing can involve using different types of software, while electronic reminders and meetings notes can assist people with memory issues.

“Meetings should have agendas to ensure clear structure and it’s helpful to take notes during meetings or record conversations so people can go back to listen to key points.

“Some people have issues reading written writing, so this can be solved by converting everything into electronic text,” Low says.

She said managers also need to be educated on how to best support workers with dementia, as each person’s experience of dementia is unique, and not everyone will experience typical memory problems as an initial symptom.

Dementia advocate Kate Swaffer told HC Online that remaining in employment supports the reduction of stigma, discrimination, isolation and reduces misperceptions others have about dementia.

“With the appropriate support for disabilities, it is possible for a person with dementia to remain employed, and there are benefits not only to the individuals and their families, the health care sector and society as a whole, but to their employers,” Swaffer says.

People with dementia are protected in the workplace by the same laws that protect people with disabilities, therefore employees are required to make “reasonable adjustments” to support people to continue in their roles, Bennett says.

“That being said, the employer is NOT required by law to change the duties of the role or create a new job as part of “reasonable adjustment” – so for many people with dementia it is not possible to continue employment, (e.g. Maths teacher who can no longer do additions due to the nature of their dementia, a nurse who might need to deal with medications and dosages, people who operate heavy machinery – they may be putting themselves in harm’s way),” she says.
Alzheimer’s Australia outlines some successful strategies HR can implement to keep people in work.
  • Employers should be encouraged to enable employees who receive a diagnosis to remain employed albeit perhaps at a different level and possibly with greater supervision. We know that people prefer to avoid changes in their environment and have some comfort in being able to do the things with which they may be familiar. So staying within the same working environment with people that are known is probably the preferable solution.
  • Employers should not tell the person they need to leave the workplace simply due to their diagnosis, but rather that the symptoms of their dementia are considered in the context of their role in the workplace.
  • Employers are expected to make reasonable adjustments for a person living with dementia to remain in work. Remaining in the work force can be very beneficial for the person with dementia, as it can slow the progression of dementia by keeping the brain active and socially engaged, giving the person a sense of purpose and routine.
  • When many people think of dementia, they immediately think of the end stages of the condition. People living with dementia have told us that friends and family often withdraw because they don’t understand the condition or how to involve the person with dementia. If this happens in the workplace where colleagues avoid the person with dementia because they don’t understand dementia or how to communicate with the person or involve them anymore, this can leave the person feeling socially isolated and it’s probably when they need the support and encouragement of their colleagues the most following a diagnosis of dementia.


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