Dementia: coming to a workplace near you

Dementia: coming to a workplace near you

The new office computer system shouldn’t have been a problem for Diane. She had been training new employees on how to use the company’s software for 20 years. But now she was having problems offering price quotes and making calculations over the phone. What’s more, Diane noticed that she was having some trouble remembering things at home.

When her husband finally convinced her to go to doctor about her memory issues, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She kept working with help from co-workers. Then one day, after misquoting a price five different times, an angry caller described her as stupid and having no business working there. Her manager, too, was angry and called her out. Diane was devastated and resigned two days later.1

Could this situation have ended differently?

Our Workforce Aging

Employed Canadians over the age of 55 made up 10 per cent of the workforce in 2000, but that share rose sharply to reach 16 per cent in 2011.2

With age being the primary risk factor for dementia, it’s only a matter of time until dementia will be impacting a workplace such as yours. Although the majority of people with dementia are diagnosed after 65, 10 per cent of all cases strike before the age of 65, in the prime of working life.3 The elimination of a legislative age of retirement means more workers will be at risk of developing dementia. Financial stress and personal preference are also keeping people at work longer.

The Alzheimer Society is working with employers and other stakeholders to get ahead of the curve on this important issue. We know that work can be a person’s greatest source of self-worth and social networks. Losing one’s job, on top of a devastating diagnosis of dementia, can leave a person feeling undervalued and socially isolated.

For some kinds of work, for example, accommodations can be made to keep a person with dementia working. These include:

  • providing a quiet working environment;
  • relying on his or her old abilities rather than assigning new tasks;
  • maintaining a familiar work routine;
  • providing calendars and to-do lists;
  • reassigning tasks that are too difficult.

Employers should realize, however, that although a diagnosis of dementia does not automatically mean someone can no longer work, the end result will ultimately be that he or she leaves the workforce. Our goal is not to keep people with dementia working indefinitely, but to help workplaces make accommodations that will give employees more control over the timing of their exit. This will create a win-win for the individual and for the employer, who will be able to keep talented people engaged and contributing to the organization for as long as is feasible.

By creating a positive work environment in which dementia is understood, employees will feel empowered in the situation and employers will be able to retain important experience and assure a smooth transition, which will minimize disruptive and painful departures for all involved.

The Alzheimer Society is developing resources for employers and employees to address the emerging issue of dementia in the workplace. To learn more about this issue, I also will be speaking on this issue at the upcoming Conference Board of Canada conference on Benefits and Disability Management 2014being held in Toronto on October 20 and 21.

If you would like to get involved with our initiative, e-mail me at

DSC_0258 (edited)David Harvey

Chief, Public Policy and Programs Initiatives at the Alzheimer Society of Ontario

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