Creating a safe workplace for employees with early onset Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t just strike older people; employees younger than 65 years old can suffer from early onset Alzheimer’s disease and not know it. November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, and employers may want to focus on informing themselves and their workers about the symptoms of early onset Alzheimer’s disease as well as the types of accommodations workers with the disease may receive under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the disease is the most common form of dementia, which is a term for memory loss that interferes with daily activities. Workers with Alzheimer’s may have difficulty remembering important deadlines or information, which may result in lower productivity. They even may forget parts of their safety training, putting themselves and others at risk of an injury or illness. Although scientists have yet to find a cure for the disease, employers may be able to help their workers understand their condition to prevent an occupational accident.

Understanding early onset Alzheimer’s disease
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s, and it is most common among older workers. However, genetics is thought to have a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease and is usually the cause when workers in their 30s, 40s and 50s develop the condition. In fact, according to the Occupational Health and Safety (OSH) magazine, 200,000 Americans are thought to have early onset Alzheimer’s disease. As many as 5% of individuals with the condition are categorized as early onset, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Younger workers with the disease often are unaware they are suffering from the condition, as a person with early onset Alzheimer’s disease only may exhibit signs of mild memory loss. While many employees may suffer from the most common symptom of Alzheimer’s disease – memory impairment – now and again, Alzheimer’s significantly alters a person’s everyday mental functions. The disease is a progressive brain disorder, and people with the condition may experience the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty remembering new information, recognizing faces or coming to a decision
  • Disorientation
  • Misplacing items in odd places
  • Personality and mood changes
  • Trouble completing everyday tasks
  • Language deficits
  • Difficulty walking or swallowing
  • Difficulty managing familiar tools

Providing accommodations under the ADA 
Alzheimer’s disease may present itself in various ways in the workplace. OSH magazine suggests a worker with the disease may progressively miss client meetings or misplace crucial company information. According to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), while Alzheimer’s disease isn’t specified under the ADA, the legislation requires employers to provide accommodations to employees with physical or mental impairments that limit their activities.

The worker may want to partner with his or her physician or psychiatrist to understand the types of accommodations he or she may require. JAN recommends employers sit down with the worker to provide support and determine ways to help the individual perform his or her tasks easier. Managers may want to work with the employee to understand his or her limitations, and train supervisors about the disease. The Alzheimer’s and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin suggests employers and the worker match tasks with the person’s abilities, and train a co-worker to assist the employee with Alzheimer’s in his or her duties and provide encouragement. Other recommendations include:

  • Providing workers with checklists and written information about job functions, routine procedures and machinery
  • Recording instructions on recorders
  • Labeling items and color-coding resources
  • Refraining from re-organizing the workplace
  • Limiting noises by offering ear plugs or headphones
  • Limiting distractions like workplace clutter and interruptions to their routines
  • Creating a structured routine to lessen confusion and frustration
  • Monitoring the employee’s performance to understand if additional accommodations may be necessary
  • Encouraging the entire workforce to support the person

While there are additional accommodations employers may want to explore, helping workers with early onset Alzheimer’s disease stay safe and productive in the workplace may help employers comply with the ADA and prevent an accident onsite.

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