We’ve all experienced fleeting memory loss – forgetting someone’s name, forgetting where we put the car keys, forgetting to bring a crucial document to a meeting.
While many people retain an agile mind throughout their lives, cognitive function begins to decline as we age and we become more susceptible to disorders affecting the brain. With an ageing population and more people working into their 70s, cases of recurring memory loss and dementia in the workplace are sure to increase.
Dementia is most commonly associated with very old people. In Australia, one in 10 people over 65 have it, and there are more than 1800 new diagnoses each week. This number is projected to grow to 7400 by 2050, according to Alzheimer’s Australia.
But it’s not just senior citizens who are at risk. At least 25,000 Australians under the age of 65 are currently diagnosed with dementia or a related memory disorder, and this number is projected to rise to 36,800 by 2050, says Carol Bennett, CEO of Alzheimer’s Australia.
“We’ve had someone as young as 20 with dementia in our network, so it’s not solely a condition affecting older people,” she says.
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a set of symptoms that includes impaired thinking and memory. While Alzheimer’s is a main contributor, other diseases can also cause dementia, such as Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
When addressing memory issues caused by dementia, HR professionals must put the individual at the centre of any health concern, says Eliza Oakley, the mindful employer manager at mental health charity SANE Australia.
“We can’t assume it’s a mental health issue causing memory loss, for example, unless an employee tells us it is,” she says. “If we highlight that we’re concerned for them due to the changes we’ve noticed, we may offer them a referral, perhaps to the employee assistance program, or perhaps inquire if it would be useful [for them] to link in with their health professional.”
It’s a case of workplaces being prepared to work with a person with dementia, echoes Bennett. Rather than see the employee as failing at their work, Bennett says employers need to learn how to recognise memory loss as a symptom of dementia. Once this connection is made, HR professionals can take steps to ensure affected employees receive the help they need.
When memory loss or dementia has been diagnosed, there are questions that HR needs to answer when considering whether they can provide reasonable accommodation to an employee. Firstly, how does the employee’s limitations affect their job performance? What are the specific tasks that cause the most difficulty? What can be done to reduce or eliminate those problems? Has the employee been consulted about solutions they may have? And, once these are in place, how regularly should there be meetings with the employee to assess if the solutions are working and whether any additional support is required? Some of the solutions to memory loss may be simple and inexpensive.
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the September 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Committed to memory’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.