Careers in Dementialand (Or What Serial Has to Do with Dementialand)

I was a little slow to the party, but I recently listened to the Serial podcast. It’s a spinoff of This American Life on NPR, in case you haven’t heard of it. If you haven’t listened to it but plan to, there really won’t be any spoilers contained here. Keep reading.

It’s a series of twelve episodes that explores a 1999 murder case. A high school student was arrested for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, but (as you probably expected) there are some who doubt his guilt. My point here is not to discuss his potential guilt or innocence, although if you know me and want to talk about that I’m all in.

My point in this blog is to discuss the defense lawyer entrusted with the case. As I listened to the podcast, I couldn’t help but wonder if she had dementia. Although she was hired because she was well-respected and tenacious, some strange behavior, poor judgment, and lack of follow-through on her part may have played a role in an innocent guy landing in prison. She was having some various health problems, rattled off on the podcast, at least one of which can be linked to dementia. She passed away in 2004.

I’ve heard rumors of the possibility of a new trial because of ineffective assistance of counsel. I would argue that a defense attorney with dementia could be as worthy of a reason for ineffective assistance of counsel as any–keeping in mind, of course, that I know next to nothing about law.

If a person shows poor judgment throughout their lifespan, they are just a person with poor judgment. We all know plenty of individuals who meet that criterion. If a person who previously showed good judgment begins to struggle to make reasonable decisions, there’s a problem that could be health-related. It could be depression, a brain tumor, bioplar disorder, schizophrenia…or dementia. Previously reasonable people do not just begin to behave erratically. Sure, we all make poor decisions from time to time, but conscientious individuals don’t just stop following through on their obligations. Sensible people don’t become unreasonable or illogical.

We think of this happening with people in their 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. They start giving their money to causes that are not legitimate or leaving their dog outside in sub-zero temperatures. But dementia (and the related poor judgment) strikes people at younger ages. It strikes people at the peak of their careers.

Last year I was fortunate to listen to a panel of individuals recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. (For obvious reasons, people with Alzheimer’s are often hesitant to be on panels.) A 50-year-old gentleman on the panel had been diagnosed six weeks earlier. His diagnosis came as a result of some uncharacteristic behavior at work.

After 25 years with the same company, he started mismanaging money. He had combined his own money with a small amount of the company’s money in a bank account. When this was discovered by other employees, they confronted him. He wasn’t defensive or argumentative. He wasn’t remorseful. He just honestly didn’t grasp why this was such a big deal.

We think of dementia as old people being forgetful. That’s a piece of it. But it can be a middle-aged person who was previously an all-star at their job starting to drop the ball. It can be an executive who used to be quite patient blowing up at inconsequential things in the workplace. Or a male manager who starts saying inappropriate things to younger female employees.

There’s little information available on what you should do if you have a co-worker who may have dementia. I’ve heard it suggested that you should sit down with them and ask a non-judgmental question like, “Have you noticed you’re getting frustrated with some of the simple tasks around the office?” How awkward is that? I’ve also heard that you should consider contacting that person’s family, but is that a violation of privacy? We don’t have policies for how to negotiate dementia in the workplace.

Dementia isn’t just about forgetful little old ladies in the nursing home.

One thought on “Careers in Dementialand (Or What Serial Has to Do with Dementialand)

  1. I loved this radio serial. I’m a longtime newspaper reporter and this radio story took readers (well, listeners) along for the ride on what we used to call a “deep dive,” an in-depth look at an issue or topic that often spanned months. That doesn’t happen as much any more…with newspapers struggling to stay alive.
    But it made me think how fantastic it would be to combine this radio technique with the concept of Linklater’s film, “Boyhood.”
    To document, over time, a person’s — one person, to keep it focused and real– dementia and the impact not only on that person, but the people all around them. Real. Not fiction.
    Maybe then others who haven’t yet been impacted by dementia and/or alzheimer’s might move to action, along with those who have.


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