Faced with an aging American workforce, companies are increasingly navigating delicate conversations with employees grappling with cognitive declines, experts say.
Workers experiencing early stages of dementia may struggle with tasks they used to complete without difficulty. Historically punctual employees may forget about scheduled meetings. And those who have traveled to the same office day after day, sometimes for years, may begin to lose their way during morning commutes.
"I've talked to a number of families where a person didn't realize they had the disease and they didn't know what was going on. And they got fired for performance issues before anyone knew what the diagnosis was,” says Ruth Drew, the director of information and support services at the nonprofit Alzheimer's Association.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the number of U.S. workers between the ages of 65 and 74 will balloon 55 percent between 2014 and 2024, with 86 percent growth for the working population over 75.
It's that 65-and-up age group that's most likely to face dementia diagnoses, though early-onset symptoms can afflict younger people. And even though studies show the rate of dementia diagnoses has fallen in recent years, the number of older U.S. workers expected to remain in the workforce has increasingly left employees and employers wrestling with the prospect of dementia in the office.
Possible accommodations might include issuing written instructions rather than oral commands, or reassigning a heavy machine operator to a desk job, says David Fram, director of equal opportunity services at the nonprofit National Employment Law Institute.
He notes that employers cannot simply fire an employee solely because of a disability or dementia diagnosis if that person can still perform certain job requirements.