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New awareness program provides education on dementia in the workplace

Free to access, the program is an initiative of Workplace Safety North and Alzheimer Society Sudbury-Manitoulin & North Bay Districts
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(File photo)

Workplace Safety North (WSN) and Alzheimer Society Sudbury-Manitoulin & North Bay Districts have teamed up to develop a new awareness program to help educate businesses on how to address dementia in the workplace.

Available free of charge, the one-hour program trains an organization’s staff and management in learning about the types of dementia, how to recognize the signs and symptoms of disease, how to communicate effectively with those living with dementia, and what types of supports are available. 

Angele Poitras, a community engagement specialist and certified psychological health and safety advisor with WSN, said the program was developed late last year after consultation with Northern Ontario employers, including Metso Outotec, Nipissing University, Vermilion River Forest Management Ltd., and Spark Employment.

“Most people’s awareness around dementia has been designed to help those of us who are journeying with somebody in our personal life who has dementia,” Poitras said.

“Little has been offered to our employers and what to do when somebody in our team presents with symptoms.”

WSN and the Society provided an introductory look at some of the information outlined in the course during a Jan. 27 noon-hour presentation as part of WSN’s ongoing series of Feed Your Brain lunch-and-learn webinars.

In Canada, January is marked as Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, when people across the country are encouraged to learn more about the disease.

Jessica Bertuzzi, a public relations and education manager for Alzheimer Society Sudbury-Manitoulin North Bay, characterized dementia as a term describing symptoms that accompany disease that affects the brain.

There are more than 100 known types of dementia, she noted, but Alzheimer's disease is by far the most common, comprising about 64 per cent of those diagnosed with dementia.

One of the most common misconceptions about Alzheimer’s disease is that it exclusively impacts adults over the age of 65.

But the disease can manifest itself in adults of all ages, she said. In Northern Ontario, for example, the youngest recorded person living with Alzheimer’s disease was 37 at the time of diagnosis.

In adults aged 65 and under, it’s referred to as young onset dementia.

“Yes, age is one of the biggest risk factors, absolutely,” Bertuzzi said. “But there are people living their young adult life – in their 30s, 40s, 50s – who are diagnosed with a type of dementia.

“These people could be working right next to you. They could be in your office every day and you might not know.”

Dementia can be difficult to diagnose because its symptoms mirror so many other illnesses, she noted. Because it can be alarming for those receiving a diagnosis, many also experience a mental health issue as well.

“Depression goes hand in hand with this diagnosis,” Bertuzzi said. “At least 75 per cent or more clients who have been diagnosed will experience significant depression symptoms at some point during the span of the disease.”

The first step in providing support in the workplace is to help eradicate the stigma associated with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, she said.

Using derogatory terms like ‘demented’ or ‘crazy,’ or making jokes about ‘old timer’s disease’ can make people living with dementia feel ashamed and reluctant to speak openly about it, Bertuzzi said.

Often, those diagnosed can be clever about hiding their symptoms, such as giving coworkers nicknames if they can’t remember their name, she said.

Early on in the disease, it might be difficult to recognize the symptoms at all, since they can present as minor changes in a person’s personality or demeanor.

But, eventually, it might take them longer to get their work done, or the work might not be of the same quality as previously. Someone with a diagnosis may be less careful about their personal hygiene or physical appearance, and they might socially isolate, calling in sick more often, avoiding lunchroom banter, or not speaking up during meetings.

Yet symptoms can be similar to those in someone experiencing stress or living with a mental illness, or, in the case of memory loss, experiencing the natural effects of aging. The difference, Bertuzzi said, is the ability for recall.

“Eventually, we’ll remember that word we couldn’t remember, but a person with dementia does not have that recall ability,” she said.

In supporting someone in the workplace who is living with dementia, Bertuzzi advised it’s critical to create a welcoming environment where people feel comfortable and respected enough to have those important conversations about their health.

Receiving a diagnosis of dementia doesn’t automatically mean their life has to drastically change.

Many living with dementia can live “very well for a very long time with it,” Bertuzzi said.

“You can still work; some people still drive,” she said. “There are things that you most certainly can still do. We just learn to do them differently.”

That includes a employee’s role in the workplace.

Someone who’s a heavy equipment operator, for example, might not be able to continue operating the machinery safely. But an employer can find other ways to support that employee and help them continue to feel like they have a place with the company, Bertuzzi said.

“They might have to do things differently, but they definitely still have value to bring to these organizations,” she said.

“Businesses need to be more open to not having job loss be something that we are saying right away, but instead finding ways to help accommodate this employee to remain a valued employee.”

Bertuzzi, who has also had a personal experience with dementia, said it can take a “small village” of people to help those diagnosed with the disease.

In the workplace, that might mean helping with small things: reading something out for the person, re-explaining directions in a different way, walking with them to meetings, or creating reminder notes.

Those small efforts can make a huge difference to those experiencing dementia.

“Let’s not be so quick to judge people, as we never know what they are going through outside of the workplace,” Bertuzzi said.

“Instead, let’s learn to be quick to help and to understand, and that understanding starts right here with awareness and education.”

To learn more, view the full webinar recording and access additional resources here.