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by Abigail Van Buren

Colleagues Suspect Forgetful Co Worker Is Battling Dementia

DEAR ABBY: Everyone knows the economy has hit hard times and, as a result, more people are working past the age of retirement. This means some in the workplace are beginning to deal with Alzheimer's and other dementia-related illnesses.

"Anita" is in her late 60s and we are certain she is showing symptoms of dementia. She has worked in our office about three years, after working in this field for more than 30 years elsewhere. But if you saw her in our office today, you would think it was her first week -- if not her first day.

Anita makes multiple mistakes every day, then sits at her desk and cries her eyes out. Our supervisor insists there is nothing he or HR can do in regards to talking (gently) to her because she could sue the company.

I'm sorry Anita is suffering, but must we let her deteriorate for three more years in our office? That's how long she is planning on staying, even though she's eligible for retirement. Her family lives elsewhere in the state and may not realize she is ill. Were she my mother, I would want someone to do something. What's the right thing to do for everyone involved? -- STUMPED IN CALIFORNIA

DEAR STUMPED: I discussed your question with Nancy Bertrando, a respected California employment law specialist, who told me: "If a person is unable to perform the essential functions of her job -- regardless of the reason -- an employer does not have the obligation to keep the person in that position. However, regardless of whether your supervisor or HR thinks it is futile, Anita should be counseled and given the opportunity to fix the problem -- if, indeed, it is fixable."