For the past one and a half years, Manfred Schlaupitz, 71, a former Daimler-Benz engineer, has been living in the northern Thai province of Chiang Mai in a Swiss-run facility for senior citizens suffering from dementia.
Schlaupitz has Alzheimer’s. His wife, Hilde, asserts that her husband “has never been as relaxed as here since the onset of his condition.”
Over the past few years, Thailand has steadily gained in popularity for elderly Westerners to retire. The number of registered Germans around Chiang Mai, for example, has increased from 600 to 1,000 within the past eight years.
Retirement homes boasting every comfort have sprung up, and there even is one facility for gay retirees.
Swiss national Martin Woodtli’s facility consists of six houses distributed throughout the village of Faham in which his nine “long-term guests” reside. He never uses the term “patients.”
“In Europe, an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is like a rubber stamp imprinted on someone’s forehead that says, ‘This person is sick,’ but here, people tend to treat fellow humans who are different in a much more relaxed manner,” Woodtli says.
Schlaupitz’s dementia started when he was 63 years old. His wife was appalled by the nursing facilities she encountered back home: “substandard service and not enough staff.”
Woodtli’s Baan Kamlangchay to her seemed like a revelation.
Today, her husband shares one of the houses with another guest. Three female caregivers look after him exclusively 24 hours a day.
In Western nursing homes, accidents often occur when guests need to get up at night and fall. Not in Baan Kamlangchay. The night nurse sleeps in the same room as Schlaupitz and can assist him immediately should he need to get out of bed.
Schlaupitz’s main caregiver, Nui, discovered that Schlaupitz can be reached with music. He likes to whistle Jingle Bells, often in duet with Nui.
Counting is another way to interact with Schlaupitz. He can still count to 30, and Nui patiently plays the “number game” with him — in German — for hours on end.
“Our carers know the key words in German,” Woodtli says, “but language skills are really secondary. What counts much more is non-verbal communication.”
Sometimes Schlaupitz becomes restless. He changes chairs every few seconds, puts on his shoes, then takes them off, but Nui is by his side. He would not have a caregiver close by at all times in a nursing facility in Europe.
Still, it is not an easy decision for families to move their loved ones to faraway Thailand. “The nursing costs are playing an important role, of course,” Woodtli says.
Living in a nursing facility in Switzerland can easily cost US$7,570 dollars a month. Thanks to Thailand’s lower wages and living expenses, the cost here is less than half that.
But the attitude of Thais toward older people is even more important than financial concerns, Woodtli says.
“Thai people are very considerate towards the elderly,” he said. “For them, it almost is a sacred duty to care for old people.”
Unlike in Europe, Thais are not shy about the idea of touching an older person’s body and have no issues with spontaneously administering a facial, body massage or pedicure.
Woodtli got his idea to offer holidays and long-term stays for dementia patients after his experiences with his own mother, herself suffering from the illness.