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Some Alzheimer's sufferers find care in far-off nations

CHIANG MAI, Thailand--Residents of this facility for people with Alzheimer's disease toss around a yellow ball and laugh under a cascade of water with their caregivers, in a swimming pool ringed by palm trees and wind chimes. Susanna Kuratli, once a painter of delicate oils, swims a lap and smiles.

Watching is her husband, Ulrich, who has a heart-rending decision: to leave his wife of 41 years in this facility 9,000 kilometers from home, or to bring her back to Switzerland.

Their homeland treats the elderly as well as any nation on Earth, but Ulrich Kuratli says the care here in northern Thailand is not only less expensive but more personal. In Switzerland, “You have a cold, old lady who gives you pills and tells you to go to bed,” he says.

Kuratli and his three grown children have given themselves six months to decide while the retired software developer lives alongside his 65-year-old wife in Baan Kamlangchay — “Home for Care from the Heart.” Patients live in individual houses within a Thai community, are taken to local markets, temples and restaurants, each with three caretakers working in rotation to provide personal around-the-clock care. The monthly US$3,800 cost is a third of what basic institutional care would come to in Switzerland.

Kuratli is not yet sure how he'll care for Susanna, who used to produce a popular annual calendar of her paintings. But he's leaning toward keeping her in Thailand, possibly for the rest of her life.

“Sometimes I am jealous. My wife won't take my hand but when her Thai carer takes it, she is calm. She seems to be happy,” he says. “When she sees me she starts to cry. Maybe she remembers how we were and understands, but can no longer find the words.”

Supply of Caretakers and Facilities Dwindle in West

Spouses and relatives in Western nations are increasingly confronting Kuratli's dilemma as the number of Alzheimer's patients and costs rise, and the supply of qualified nurses and facilities struggles to keep up. Faraway countries are offering cheaper, and to some minds better, care for those suffering from the irreversible loss of memory.

The nascent trend is unnerving to some experts who say uprooting people with Alzheimer's will add to their sense of displacement and anxiety, though others say quality of care is more important than location. There's also some general uneasiness over the idea of sending ailing elderly people abroad: The German press has branded it “gerontological colonialism.”

Germany is already sending several thousand sufferers, as well as the aged and otherwise ill, to Eastern Europe, Spain, Greece and Ukraine. Patients are even moving from Switzerland, which was ranked No. 1 in health care for the elderly this year in an index compiled by the elderly advocacy group HelpAge International and the U.N. Population Fund.

A Fifth to Half of the Cost

The Philippines is offering Americans care for US$1,500 to US$3,500 a month — as compared to US$6,900 the American Elder Care Research Organization says is the average monthly bill for a private room in a skilled nursing U.S. facility. About 100 Americans are currently seeking care in the Philippines but more facilities are being built and a marketing campaign will be launched in 2014, says J.J. Reyes, who is planning a retirement community near Manila.

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Martin Woodtli, founder of Baan Kamlangchay care center, poses with his book at his office in Chiang Mai.

(AP)

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