What you need to know
Amid a lack of public awareness, Alzheimer’s and dementia patients in Taiwan have long faced difficulties finding adequate care. Now, with a rapidly ageing population, the illness is starting to hit the country’s healthcare budget.
A night of dancing during the fall of 2008 ended when Chuang Su-mei (莊素玫) noticed her husband, Chiou Meng-huei (邱孟暉), collapsed on the floor. Chiou, then in his early 50s, hit his head on the floor and was rushed to the emergency room. After 20 minutes of CPR and other medical revival techniques, Chiou didn’t regain consciousness.
“The ER couldn’t revive him,” she says, sitting next to her husband. “We continued pressing the doctors and nurses to rescue him.”
Chiou was in a coma for 18 days. When he woke up, he didn’t recognize his wife and only remembered their children, along with one of Chuang’s classmates.
Several months later, Chiou’s family noticed his mental health was deteriorating. He began forgetting basic tasks around the house and how to write his name. Chuang saw that her husband's situation was slowly getting worse. Then in October 2009, one of Chuang’s close friends recommended he see a neurologist at National Taiwan University Hospital in Taipei.
“After several tests the doctor announced he had dementia. When the doctor told me that, I couldn’t stop crying,” Chuang told the The News Lens International (TNLI).
It was at that moment that she realized her hopes of Chiou recovering had vanished. His dementia would gradually worsen and no cure was available.
Chiou, now 60, is part of an increasing population of dementia and Alzheimer’s patients in Taiwan. According to statistics from the Ministry of Health and Welfare, more than 237,000 people suffer from various types of dementia – the types are classified by the severity of the illness. Typically sufferers are diagnosed from the age of 65. They experience various symptoms such as memory loss, personality change and lack of visual awareness.
Taiwan’s population is, by world standards, rapidly ageing. Experts forecast that the percentage of elderly people in Taiwan will almost double from 11% of the population in 2012 to 20% by 2025. Researchers in 2014 estimated an average annual cost in care of US$14,609 for mild sufferers, and US$20,643 and US$29,398 for moderate and severe patients respectively.
The inevitable rise in patients has sharpened the focus of government and non-governmental organizations (NGO). Both provide services such as helplines, care and nursing facilities, education websites and support gatherings.
In 2005, the School of Wisdom was set up in Taipei. It is a professional group designed to assist Alzheimer’s and dementia patients live to their fullest through physical and mental workout. Six years later, the Family of Wisdom was established as a bridge for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients along with their caregivers.
Tang Li-yu (湯麗玉), secretary-general of the Taiwan Alzheimer's Association, volunteers at the Family of Wisdom during the week and spends time talking to both patients and caregivers.
Tang explained to TNLI the significance of the Family of Wisdom.
“This service is sort of a therapy for family caregivers,” Tang said. “With the Family of Wisdom, we can reduce the number of tragedies related to families of dementia and Alzheimer's patients.”
Tang refers to an event two weeks ago, a granddaughter killed her grandmother who had dementia before comitting suicide. The grandmother was about to enter a nursing home.
“We’re just like a big family. Some family caregivers think the food [here] is more delicious here than at the patient’s house,” Tang says.
The Family of Wisdom, which has four branches in Taiwan, caught the attention of Chuang, who, along with her husband, desperately needed comfort and guidance due to the lack of medical care for these patients in Taiwan.
Attending daily events since the center’s grand opening in 2011 has made Chiou more sociable and positive. In the meantime, his wife now has time to handle family and personal affairs. She knows her husband is in good hands even without her presence, and Chuang believes it has brought the family closer together.
The couple’s story resonates with other dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, along with their caregivers.
Wu Chen-hsien (吳振賢) never had a chance to bring his wife to a center like the Family of Wisdom. At the age of 45, her diagnosis of early onset dementia caused her to deteriorate rapidly.
“If she was still alive, of course I would bring her. It’s a support group,” Wu says.
Wang Guang-huei (王光輝) brought his wife to the center for two years before she passed away.
“I had to quit my job after a year of her diagnosis because she needed help,” he says. “Even though I quit, I still couldn’t help her out and it still frustrates me to this day.”
Wang still attends the daily meetings telling his wife’s story. He wants it to be an inspiration for others to not only seek help from doctors, but also organizations such as the Family of Wisdom.
First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole