The signs can be slow and insidious. The first might be a hesitation to recall a word or recent event. The next might be confusion and losing track of dates, seasons and the passage of time.
Gradually, the signs of Alzheimer's disease become unmistakable. And once the diagnosis is confirmed, the path forward for many Minnesota families is fraught with personal, physical and financial challenges.
That path is one that hits women particularly hard. According to the Alzheimer's Association, nearly two-thirds of the estimated 5.2 million Americans living with Alzheimer's are women, and women constitute 60 percent to 70 percent of all informal caregivers.
As real a concern as breast cancer is to women's health, women in their 60s are about twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's over the rest of their lives as they are to develop breast cancer.
The association also says 2.5 times as many women as men provide intensive "on-duty" care 24 hours a day for someone living with the disease.
Among caregivers who feel isolated, women are much more likely than men to link isolation with feeling depressed (17 percent of women vs. 2 percent of men).
These caregivers are also often employees of Minnesota companies and organizations, so the challenge of Alzheimer's extends beyond the home to the workplace.
Employers across the state now have workers who face the pressure of caring for elderly parents with Alzheimer's, some of whom have the added burden of simultaneously caring for their young children.
These employees bring this stress to their workplace, which can affect productivity, morale and engagement.
Today, more than 15.5 million caregivers in the U.S. support people with Alzheimer's and other dementias, and nearly half of those caregivers are employed full or part time. Fifty-four percent of them reported having to go in late, leave work early or take time off due to the strain of caregiving.
The Alzheimer's Association reports that 11 percent of women Alzheimer's caregivers had to quit work either to become a caregiver or because their caregiving duties became too burdensome.
At a time when employers are in need of skilled and dedicated workers, a loved one's Alzheimer's condition is driving many of them from the workplace.
And the problem will only grow over time. The number of Americans with Alzheimer's disease and their caregivers will escalate rapidly in coming years. As the baby boomers age, the disease is projected to affect as many as 16 million by 2050, barring the development of medical breakthroughs to prevent, slow or stop the disease.
The impact on companies, communities and personal finances is huge.
People affected by Alzheimer's — both women and men — face a toll beyond the mental decline of a loved one. Alzheimer's is one of the most expensive conditions in the nation.
The total national cost of caring for people with Alzheimer's and other dementias is $214 billion, not including unpaid caregiving by family and friends valued at $220.2 billion. Nearly one in every five Medicare dollars is spent on people with Alzheimer's or another dementia.
What can Minnesota employers do to handle this impact and help employees deal with these new burdens?
Raising awareness of the issue internally is a first step. But patience, care and work flexibility will also be important as employers navigate this challenge, which will only grow over time.
Another option is for companies to become a member of the Alzheimer's Workplace Alliance (AWA), which raises awareness of Alzheimer's and its symptoms. The organization also promotes the importance of early detection to employees.
As a supporter of the Alzheimer's Association, my company invites speakers from the association each year to educate employees on the signs of Alzheimer's, how the disease progresses and what resources are available to them.
In addition, caregivers who are dealing with older parents or loved ones are invited to sessions on various topics — from the factors associated with deciding when a parent needs assisted living or additional care to such practical topics as information on power of attorney and health directives.
These dialogues allow employees to learn, but also feel engaged and supported during a difficult time.
Until a cure is found or medical breakthroughs help slow the disease's progression, Alzheimer's will be a part of the American fabric for decades to come.
Minnesota employers can offer employee-caregivers information, education and work flexibility to help them manage the impact of this insidious and chronic disease.