China is facing one of the fastest-growing aging populations in the world. Within 30 years, it could have 400 million people over the age of 60 supported by a much smaller working population. China’s problem has been compounded by its “one-child” policy that may leave as few as one working-person to every two elderly in need of care.
Ten years ago in China, “dementia” and “Alzheimer’s” were dirty words that families were ashamed to admit and doctors were afraid to diagnose. This diagnosis would very likely put a patient into the psychiatric ward of a hospital. Doctors were not aware of the disease or its treatments. As a result, these patients were cast aside and out of view, without proper treatment.
Today, however, China is taking steps to educate the public and medical community and create new facilities for this population. One such facility considers itself a “residential complex” with a hair salon, cinema, game rooms, and a karaoke suite. The facility is modeled after the European system that includes personal contact and memory games to keep the patients’ minds active. The patients wear GPS armbands so that their locations may be monitored by medical staff at all times.
While this particular facility is at the height of current world practice, China still has a long way to go. China’s urban culture is changing such that families are not as able to take care of their elderly as they used to. Facilities remain too few and are largely underfunded. Despite the current goal of one nursing home in every district able to care for dementia patients, this may prove to provide too little care for the growing elderly population. Of course, this care comes at a cost that the shrinking working population may not be able to afford. China’s elderly could become either the world’s next big human rights issue or the model of how to care for an aging population.