By Jennifer FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C

As a business owner, your employees are your work family and if something personal is inhibiting job performance, you need to know. Especially if it comes to a health issue like Alzheimer’s Disease. Our guest blogger today has some advice on how to handle employees affected by this debilitating disease.

Joanne, a 54-year-old sales manager, was fired last week because of her declining performance over the past 18 months. She was arriving late to meetings with clients, missing report deadlines and misplacing confidential company data. Prior to these issues, Joanne had a superior track record with the company so her boss was especially disappointed in these changes. During her 15 year tenure with the organization Joanne had won two awards, been promoted three times and was one of the highest earners in the organization. What happened to this star?

Unbeknownst to anyone, including Joanne, she was suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is generally considered an older person’s illness, and usually that is true. But approximately 200,000 Americans suffer with the early onset type. Early onset Alzheimer’s disease symptoms, by definition, manifest in patients before age 65, and can occur as early as the thirties and forties but are most typically diagnosed during the fifties.

What Is Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease? Early onset Alzheimer’s disease is a type of permanent dementia for which there is currently no cure. Dementia symptoms consist of short term memory loss, confusion, personality changes, poor judgment and getting lost with familiar tasks and in familiar places. Those suffering with early onset Alzheimer’s disease usually have been experiencing symptoms for a year or more by the time they seek a doctor’s advice. Since dementia symptoms can be caused by a number of temporary conditions, many physicians correctly consider those first, particularly for those under age 65. Temporary causes of dementia can include significant stress, dehydration, infection, medication side effects and drug or alcohol abuse.

What Can Employers Do? First, an organization can facilitate a climate of trust about issues, health or otherwise, that may impact work performance. It is also important to investigate when a star employee fails to meet expectations. Successful employees generally don’t start falling off, especially after 15 years, unless something is very wrong. When people are experiencing these symptoms in denial, a compassionate manager or human resources professional may be able to encourage the employee to seek help through Employee Assistance Programs or their group health insurance.

If the employee is not in denial, and a trusting corporate culture exists, the employee will express concerns about his or her ability to do her job. Patients experiencing such symptoms often appropriately begin by consulting with their primary care physician. But if the symptoms persist and a cause is not determined, it is important to encourage the employee to confer with a specialist such as a neurologist, geriatrician or geriatric psychiatrist with experience in dementia. Also, memory clinics and assessment centers are available in most major cities to assess and evaluate symptoms.

While early onset Alzheimer’s disease can create havoc in the workplace for both employers and employees, it is fortunately a rare condition. When everyone in the workplace understands what to look for, it is easier to guide coworkers and subordinates who need help.

About the Author: Jennifer FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C is an author, speaker and educator. Founder of Jenerations Health Education, Inc., she has more than 20 years’ experience in healthcare. Jennifer is a frequent speaker at national and regional conferences and was an Adjunct Instructor at Johns Hopkins University. Her new book, “Your 24/7 Older Parent” answers the prayers of those dealing with the care of an elderly parent. For more information on Jennifer FitzPatrick’s speaking, please visit www.jenerationshealth.com.