After her husband Mike Kessler was diagnosed with mild Alzheimer’s disease in 2021, Karen Kessler admitted she would hover around him.

The Windsor, Ont. couple implemented many strategies in place to manage Mike’s diagnosis, and Karen remembers believing he would need plenty of help. “I was doing everything, I was carrying the load, and quite frankly I was getting exhausted,” she recalled during a fireside chat at Benefits Canada’s 2024 Chronic Disease at Work conference in February.

Read: How employers can support Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, caregivers

Then, on a vacation in 2022, Karen became ill with the coronavirus and Mike had to care for her. With the help of phone notifications he remembered to check in regularly and he went out for dinner on his own without getting lost. “I thought, ‘OK he is much more capable than I was giving him credit for,'” Karen said. “I was going by the diagnosis, not what actually was our reality.”

Today, Mike is highly active in the community and holds a governance role on the board of directors for the Alzheimer’s Society of Windsor. “For me it’s been a very slow progression, and if you have mild Alzheimer’s or dementia it could stay that way,” he said.  

Also speaking during the session, Laura Tamblyn Watts, chief executive officer of CanAge, said while people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s will see a change in their cognitive function over time, “it doesn’t mean that the minute you get your diagnosis you all of a sudden lose all of your abilities.”

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Tamblyn Watts said it’s important for employers to understand that employees with cognitive impairments still have plenty to offer the workplace and assumptions about what those staff members are capable of don’t always match up with reality. “Just because you either are having symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia, or even if you’ve got a diagnosis, it doesn’t mean you can’t work. It means that it’s a disability that we need to accommodate.”

It’s something that Mike himself stressed. “A lot of the skills that I’ve had for years are still there,” he said, noting that he trained as an audio recording engineer and is still able to do that work. “All of those skills are still there and they’re marketable skills.”

Currently, the small handful of treatments available for Alzheimer’s are effective only at the very early stages of the disease and only for a specific group of people, said Tamblyn Watts. However, the first-ever crop of disease-modifying treatments are in the pipeline and in the future could start to make a difference in people’s cognitive function and prompt a cultural change in patients’ openness to discussing their diagnosis.

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“We’re really at that critical tipping point. It’s going to mean [employers] are going to have more people coming forward and telling you they’ve got a diagnosis and [are] expecting you to be supportive and understanding that cognitive impairment is just one kind of disability that [requires] accommodations.”

Tamblyn Watts recommended employers integrate cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s and dementia into their accommodation policies and caregiving strategies for their employees and review their drug plans to ensure new Alzheimer’s medications will be covered.

She noted as most employers almost certainly have employees who are caregivers, it’s important to understand they’re looking for support, understanding and compassion.

Read more coverage of the 2024 Chronic Disease at Work conference.