Why dementia really is HR’s problem

More than five million Americans are currently living with the disease and the figures are only going to get worse

More than five million Americans are currently living with dementia and the worrying statistic is only going to get worse – in just 10 years, a staggering 7.1 million citizens are expected to be suffering from the disease – but what can HR do about it?

Industry expert and long-term care planning consultant Karen Henderson told HRM that employers need to be prepared for the impact dementia will have on their workforce because they will, without doubt, be affected at some point.

“Employers are going to be affected in two ways,” Henderson told HRM. “It’s going to affect them because they will have employees with dementia due to our aging workforce and they’re going to have employees who are caring for a friend or family member who has dementia due to the struggling healthcare system.”

Direct impact

While dementia is often labelled as an old person’s disease, Americans are now staying in the workforce far longer – a recent study by the Transamerica Center for Retirement found that nearly an incredibly 61 percent said they expected to work beyond the typical retirement age of 65.

And the disease doesn’t just target seniors – between two and 10 per cent of cases occur before the age of 65.

It’s an epidemic that employers should feel obligated to address, says Henderson.

“The sooner employers can get a program in place – to educate employees, to alert employees to watch their co-workers to see if somebody is struggling, to offer support if an individual needs it – the better,” she stressed.

“Even if an individual does not want to recognize it in the workplace, an employer should be encouraging people to seek medical attention if they suspect something is not right,” she added.

“One of the things that people don’t understand is that they think if you’re diagnosed with a cognitive impairment that the party’s over – well that’s not true,” asserted Henderson.

“People can live and work for years, productively, with the right medical attention and support,” she said, “but what they do need to do is put their wills in place, their powers of attorney in place, their advance directives, so all of that is looked after.”

Indirect impact

On the flip side, scores of employees are also under phenomenal stress as they try to juggle to responsibilities of full-time work with informal caregiving and, in many circumstances, raising children.

Approximately one-fifth of Americans aged 45 and over provide some form of care to seniors and by the time employees in their 30s reach that age, even more are expected to do the same.

The physical and psychological toll is unprecedented – up to 75 percent of family caregivers will develop psychological illnesses and 15 to 32 percent will experience depression.

“Anyone who is a family caregiver is under huge stress and when they’re at work,” agreed Henderson. “You’re using the phone, you’re researching, you’re trying to find answers, your stress levels are huge and you’re not productive.

“Employers who do not recognize this issue will see their employees between 50 and 65 losing tremendous productivity and losing their own health,” she warned. “They’re going to be absent from work, they’re going to ask for leaves of absence, they’re going to quit and you know that it costs more to hire and retrain then it does to keep a current employee.”

Action plan

According to Henderson, there’s some essential steps any employer can take to alleviate the stress caregivers are under while demonstrating your support for any employers who may fear developing the disease.

“First of all if you have an employee assistance program that’s a good tool for helping caregivers cope,” she told HRM.

“Employers can also have resources on site, they can have a place where employees can go and access print materials that the employer has collected or they can access bookmarked websites on a computer that will help them cope with dementia in various ways,” she continued.

Henderson also suggested employers hold caregiver fairs where suppliers and experts – such as the Alzheimer’s Society, a home-care company, or a consultant – are invited into the workplace to interact with employees and offer education.

“They can also be more understanding of employees who are caregivers,” she stressed. “Make their schedules more flexible, let them work from home if possible, understand that they may have to make or take phone calls regarding the person that they’re caring for and just being open and compassionate with these people because they are under a tremendous amount of stress.”

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