(Bloomberg) — In China, there are only about 300 qualified physicians to treat more than 9 million dementia sufferers. The shortage is overwhelming families and threatening resources from an already stretched welfare system as the country ages.
When 71 year old Shi Anquan chops firewood or visits the market in his northern China village, his wife Yuhua, also 71, plods quietly behind. Shi, a farmer, has given up tilling the land to devote himself full time to his wife’s care, reminding her to bathe and change her socks. The village’s single nursing home won’t take patients with mental disease. The nearest hospital doesn’t have dementia specialists. Shi must travel with his wife to visit doctors in Beijing, a three-hour trip each way with two bus changes.
“If someone is going to have Alzheimer’s, China is a rough place to have it,” said Benjamin Shobert, managing director of Rubicon Strategy Group, which advises companies on the senior- care market. “Aging will be the biggest crisis of the century for China and Alzheimer’s is at the crux of the problem.”
China has the world’s largest group of Alzheimer’s sufferers, according to a 2013 article in the medical journal Lancet. Although countries from the United States to France also struggle with Alzheimer’s, the stakes are higher in China, where the numbers are poised to balloon as the population ages and rapid industrialization boosts risk factors from pollution to diabetes.
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Life expectancy in China has increased seven years to 76 since 1990. The flip side of that progress is that an aging population has combined with rapid modernization to fuel a rise in mental illness from depression to Alzheimer’s even as the nation has directed only limited resources toward the elderly.
“Caring for most dementia sufferers in China is left to family members with no or limited training or support from the state and at considerable physical, psychological and financial costs to the care givers,” said Kit Yee Chan, lead author of the Lancet article.
There were an estimated 5.7 million Alzheimer’s patients in China in 2010, 53 percent higher than a decade earlier and twice as many as earlier estimated by the international health community, according to the June Lancet study.
Shi had to wait years to find a specialist for his wife, whose memory loss, combined with violent outbursts, began five years ago. She’s accused him of stealing her money and she has chased Shi around the house, hitting him on the legs with an iron rod.
While local doctors suspected Alzheimer’s, the nearest county hospital didn’t have a specialized unit to make a formal diagnosis and the anti-psychotic prescribed there left her constantly dazed.
Shi and his wife now live with their youngest son’s family in the same house where Yuhua once ruled the roost. Their daughter- in-law does the house work and their 40-year-old son, Shi Shuanzhu, travels frequently for odd-jobs such as trading fertilizer and corn. The elders mostly fend for themselves other than meal time, with Yuhua increasingly dependent on her husband for the smallest of tasks.
“Now, I wake up in the middle of the night to cover her with the blanket because she can’t even do it herself,” said Shi who must also contend with his own heart condition. “How can I mind doing this, she’s looked after me for fifty years. I only hope I can stay healthy to take care of her.”
Shi and Yuhua are better off than many elderly couples in China, where traditional family structures are increasingly stressed. For decades, China’s family planning laws have permitted only one child per couple in many parts of the country. Today, that policy has brought about a shortage of caregivers even as the nation rapidly ages and longevity increases.
The “informal system of family care might break down over time with the large internal migration, rapid rise in the cost of living, reduced average family size and fewer young family members,” said Chan, who spent 18 months canvassing Alzheimer’s data with colleagues.