Alzheimer's centre teaches patients, carers to live with disease

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 April, 2010, 12:00am

'Before she started going to school, she was a real headache. Now, she's learned to listen to me,' Ko said.

She was referring not to her children but to her 85-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer's disease.

The 'school' is the day care service centre at Wong Chuk Hang Hospital, where treatment for patients with Alzheimer's includes playing mahjong and doing handicrafts.

The four-month programme takes 24 patients who are divided into two groups. Each group visits the centre twice a week. More than 700 elderly patients with the disease have been through the programme since it was launched in 2000.

Ng Tai-mui, Ko's mother, said she enjoyed playing mahjong. 'It's good to have people to play with me. I always win,' she said.

Until she took her mother to the centre, Ko said she did not know the best way to communicate with an Alzheimer's patient. 'I always tried to correct her. Now I know to play along with her to avoid conflict,' she said.

Geriatrics consultant Dr Bernard Kong Ming-hei, who is in charge of the programme, said the day care service was also an introductory course for carers.

'By observing how our nurses take care of the patients, we hope family members can learn to do the same,' he said. A typical 'school day' lasts for five hours. Patients do origami, paint and talk about their lives. They are reminded of the date, season and festivals.

Kong said the centre's 'classrooms' had to be specially designed. For example, the doors had to look like walls so that patients cannot easily wander off. The floor tiles had to be in light and warm colours, otherwise patients could mistake them for holes. Old black-and-white photographs line the walls to remind patients of the past.

'For Alzheimer's patients, sometimes treatment without drugs works better than medication,' Kong said.

About 6.1 per cent of the elderly in Hong Kong suffer from Alzheimer's disease. Government statistics in 2006 showed that more than 30 per cent of people aged 85 or over have the disease.

Sufferers lose their memory gradually, mix up time and places, and can develop depression. The disease cannot be cured, but further deterioration can be stopped by drugs or other treatment.

Ways to prevent Alzheimer's include using the brain often, such as by playing chess, bridge and mahjong, doing regular exercise and eating more green vegetables for their folic acid, which also helps to prevent the disease.