New York Times (January 12, 2011): China, in a Shift, Takes on its Alzheimer's Patients

Publication Date: 
Wed, 01/12/2011

Last year, an expensive, red-brick residential complex opened here, equipped with a hair salon, cinema, toy-cluttered game rooms and a karaoke suite offering the latest in pop music.

The residents are not Chinese yuppies. They are older patients with Alzheimer's disease or dementia in a nursing home that is on the forefront of a new effort by China to deal with its exploding elderly population.

“This is the best place we could imagine,” says Miao Yuqiang, a 49-year-old Shanghai bus driver who helped his 81-year-old mother enroll here. “By the time we found this nursing home, we were desperate.”

While many countries are struggling to cope with rapidly aging populations, in China there are forecasts that within three decades there could be nearly 400 million people over the age of 60 and, partly because of the one-child policy, a declining number of working-age people to care for them.

Recognizing the difficult road ahead, China is beginning to educate the public and the medical community about dementia, and big cities are making plans to build new facilities, like the Shanghai No. 3 Elderly Home.

The shift in attitudes is remarkable. A decade ago, many families were ashamed to admit that their elders had such a disease. And because of a lack of awareness about the disease, many dementia patients were confined to the psychiatric wards of hospitals, which placed steel bars over the windows.

But today, a growing number of families are desperate to place relatives in a nursing home. The problem, health experts say, is that there simply are not enough.

Health experts are predicting severe strains on the state and on working families here. And those strains could be compounded by the lack of awareness about Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, even among medical professionals in China.

“This is an impending health crisis for China, and it may even exceed what’s happening in the U.S. because of the one-child policy,” said Rhoda Au, an associate professor at the Boston University School of Medicine.