Alzheimer's Can Be A Workplace Issue

Sally Mainquist, a veteran Minnesota accountant and small business owner, recently learned through an informal employee survey that seven of her 39 workers have a parent or in-law suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

"A fellow business owner I know was asking, 'What's next?,' " she said last week. "He's a friend and competitor. Three young kids and now his mom has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's."

Mainquist has a clue. Her mother, Jo Ann Sullivan, died in 2009 at age 76, after 13 years with the disease.

Mainquist considers herself fortunate because she and her five siblings were able to help their dad care for their mom for years.

"We kept her at home for as long as possible," Mainquist said. "And nursing homes are so expensive.

"It gets to be so emotional," said Mainquist, recalling with a tear the cheery, smart mom who was the heart of her big Iowa family. "It can be overwhelming, emotionally. It gets so that their bodies are there but not their minds. Of the top 10 diseases, this is the only one without a cure."

I believe Alzheimer's robbed my Grandma Josie of her warm personality. In the early 1960s, when I was 9 or 10, my parents took in dad's ailing folks. I was confused by grandma's increasingly disheveled state, her confusion and the harsh words she spewed, on occasion, at my mom.

Dad told me to ignore it, that she had "hardening of the arteries."

I saw the World War II sergeant break down a few times over his mom's worsening confusion, anxiety and anger.

Alzheimer's is a growing issue for families, employers and government, which today pays much of the health care tab for the elderly through Medicare and Medicaid.

"I'm not a big one for more laws, but I'm for employers being more empathetic toward employees facing these issues; listening, support groups, education," said Mainquist, co-owner of Veritae Group, which provides companies with contract financial professionals.

Co-owner Kris Larson also lost a grandmother to Alzheimer's.

Two years ago, Mainquist went on the board of the Minnesota chapter of the Alzheimer's Impact Group (alzimpact.org), which raises funds, shares information, works with employers and more.

The two owners tell their people to take the time they need to deal with family issues. However, even though Veritae pays salary and benefits and payroll taxes, its employees technically are contractors who take assignments at their discretion. Not every employee or employer has that luxury.

Regardless, Mainquist and other employers have found it's smart to support employees and help them tap Alzheimer's-related resources.

A few years ago, I wrote about Tom Allen, then 61, who quit his job as executive director of a small nonprofit to care for his wife, Julie.

Allen worked part-time as a janitor and joined a caregivers support network that helped him navigate the health care system. He sold the family home and moved with Julie to a senior citizen building.

Allen found help through ACT on Alzheimer's (actonalz.org), a volunteer-driven Minnesota organization that studies related issues and explores economical and innovative initiatives to help caregivers, affected families and taxpayers. By keeping patients living independently as long as possible, ACT on Alzheimer's says that we can avoid some of the huge family and public costs of institutional living, which can easily run $10,000 monthly at private or public expense.

ACT on Alzheimer's is supported by businesses, community groups, the Alzheimer's Association and concerned individuals. It seeks to make Minnesota communities more sensitive to those suffering from dementia and their families.

It's likely that each of us will be affected in some way by Alzheimer's during our careers. Resources are increasingly available to help along the journey.

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Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.

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