My brothers and I lost our mother, Nina, some years back.
Nina is still with us physically but the strong resilient woman who guided us through our childhood years and retained our love and respect through our adult life has been suffering from vascular dementia for some time now. She is not the Nina we knew.
She remembers us when we visit her in her aged care facility. She often recalls parts of her younger life and mentions the need to catch the train home to Bathurst, a home she left in 1961. She has occasional conversations with her brother and twin sister who passed away a few year back.
As Nina pushes her wheelchair around her facility she may pass Joan* standing handbag in hand staring blankly into the distance, Greta* waiting at the door for the visitor who isn’t coming, Alf* sleeping peacefully in his bed chair and Carol* complaining that the other residents are wearing her clothes. The carers cheerfully greet her and joke with her about her daily “walks”.
The onset of Nina’s dementia was gradual and incremental, only obvious to us as it approached its latter stages. The evidence went unnoticed for many years; accusations of the delivery man stealing her groceries which had arrived; taking a second exercise walk on some days; hiding her purse and forgetting where it was; overfeeding her cat, just to cite a few.
When cleaning out her home after sale, the magnitude of our ignorance became apparent; cans in the cupboard and meat in the freezer which had long since passed their use by date; her long lost wallet under a mattress in the spare room; her “stolen” cash under the lining in the cupboard and a cupboard half full of toilet rolls.
When we are with family, friends and work colleagues regularly, a deterioration in their mental state, particularly relating to dementia, may go unnoticed.
In the early stages of dementia many people will adapt routines to “cover their tracks” and disguise this gradual deterioration in their memory and their capacity to complete some of the most menial of tasks. Their awareness of their deterioration may be something which they do not want to confront and do not want others to recognise.
As it progresses we may look to other reasons for their behaviour, ignoring the obvious. In the workplace, this can lead to a deterioration in performance and a slide towards an ignominious end to an otherwise productive and fulfilling career.
While not necessarily age related, the incidence of dementia does increase with age.
With people remaining in the workforce longer and their physical health being retained to a much older age than may have been the case 20-30 years ago, there is a significant need to explore means by which we can identify and support employees who are showing the initial signs of dementia and other disorders which impact on their capacity to perform.
This is our challenge, and the challenge for our leaders and our HR professionals.