Dementia, Other Boomer Concerns Confront Employers

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By Genevieve Douglas

Employees’ cognitive health will increasingly need support in the workplace as the working population ages. At the same time, resources for overall well-being, and for loved ones of individuals with dementia or Alzheimer’s, can’t be left out of the solution.

The Baby Boomer generation still makes up the majority of workers today, and employers, supervisors and other leaders need to “absolutely” think about the cognitive abilities of these workers, Dr. Andrew Budson of the VA Boston Healthcare System, told Bloomberg Law Oct 25. Budson is chief of the Cognitive & Behavioral Neurology division and associate chief of staff for education at VA Boston.

According to Budson, 5 percent of individuals over the age of 65 actually have dementia, and another 10 or 15 percent likely have cognitive impairments that affect them in their day-to-day work, even if these impairments haven’t met the criteria for dementia.

“This is going to be happening, and if it can be done in the right way it’s always better to be proactive about such things instead of waiting for a crisis to occur,” Budson said.

Employers and human resources departments, however, can’t just look at the specific medical issue when designing wellness programming, because many life factors can contribute to any singular diagnosis, Kathleen Schulz, the well-being and engagement practice leader for Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.'s eastern region, told Bloomberg Law Oct. 26. Gallagher is an insurance brokerage and risk-management company based in Washington.

Although HR needs to support employees who have a cognitive diagnosis, it’s just as critical to support individuals whose loved ones have cognitive impairments, Jenny Love, a physician and Gallagher’s health management director, told Bloomberg Law Oct. 26. Employers are more frequently dealing with cognitive disease indirectly, via a mid-career employee dealing with a parent who has Alzheimer’s, for example, or the spouse of someone with an early onset dementia diagnosis, she said.

Holistic Approach

HR typically isn’t strategizing toward an aging workforce or on cognitive function specifically, because it’s important to understand that employees come to work as a whole person, Schulz said. There can be physical, emotional, career, community, and financial issues that affect a worker’s health and well-being, she said.

“We need to have a holistic approach” in wellness and health programming, because ignoring some factors can effect overall productivity in the workplace, Schulz said.

Pseudo-dementia, which often is a side effect of stress and depression, may be more common for employers to experience than dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, Love said, citing the condition as an example. Pseudo-dementia can occur because of work-related stress, financial stress, work-life balance, or other challenges an employee is experiencing. Wellness programming that targets overall employee stress would be more effective at reducing the pseudo-dementia symptoms than programming aimed at only cognitive health, she said.

“Any type of programming or strategy that helps reduce stress in the workplace is going to be effective,” Schulz said. HR should explore stress-reducing solutions such as flexible work arrangement policies, benefits for employees who are caregivers outside of work, and financial wellness resources as potential solutions, she recommended.

Healthy diet, exercise, mental stimulation, and memory practice can all contribute to an individual’s cognitive health, and the workplace could be an optimal partner in promoting positive practices, Budson said. Budson recently co-authored the book,"Seven Steps to Managing Your Memory: What’s Normal, What’s Not, and What to Do About.”

Employers, for example, should strive to offer healthy snacks at meetings and as options in the cafeteria or pantry. Employers also can be effective in encouraging workers to exercise, whether through gym memberships, in-house workout spaces, or wellness programming, Budson said. Everyday work assignments can also do double duty on memory improvement through memorization, to-do lists, and mindfulness techniques to focus, as they are all strategies for memory aids effective in improving cognitive functions, he added.

Don’t Get Too Specific

HR should also caution organizations to not look for certain diseases in employee workforces specifically, Schulz said. That kind of programming could open companies up to accusations of discrimination or violations of laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.

“We shouldn’t necessarily be training or working on a worst case scenario of Alzheimer’s or dementia” in the workplace, Schulz said. Instead, HR can emphasize resources such as employee assistance programs, she advised.

Employee assistance programs are often untapped resources that employees overlook, Love added. HR can work to de-stigmatize EAPs, because it can help workers address many more issues than traditional therapy, she said.

“These are solutions we already have in place, and employers should re-invigorate, or even re-brand” these resources so employees don’t feel like they are alone when dealing with stress, depression, or cognitive disease, Love said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at THarris@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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