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Dementia and Alzheimer's A lifetime's memories erased

Faham is a village in northern Thailand, a few kilometres outside Chiang Mai. It's here that ten years ago, Swiss citizen Martin Woodtli set up Baan Kamlangchay, a centre for people suffering from Alzheimer's disease and old-age dementia.

His project began when his father killed himself, after he no longer felt able to look after his wife, an Alzheimer's patient. Woodtli became his mother's sole caregiver.

Convinced there was not a single institution in Switzerland that was up to the task of caring for these patients, financially or in terms of the structure, he decided after much thought to take his mother with him to Thailand. Woodtli, a social worker, knew the country well as he had worked there for Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders). He then set up a specially adapted structure for his mother.

Today Baan Kamlangchay is home to a dozen European residents.

"Who am I?" "Always the same question." Siegfried doesn't expect her to hear the answer. The 78-year-old German has been having the same conversation with his wife Irene for years. Her illness remains mysterious and tough to deal with, especially for family and friends. The memories of more than 50 years of life together are slipping away, slowly vanishing forever. Irene is here for a few more days to see if she can become a resident, but Siegfried isn't quite ready to leave her behind in Thailand. The couple will head back to Potsdam near Berlin, where Siegfried will continue to care for his wife alone.

Some residents have been here for a number of years, while others have just arrived – at least that's what they think. Geri seems troubled, anguished and talks non-stop in a language no one comprehends. Beda sits silently in his chair staring at a point in the distance. Occasionally, he hums quietly to himself. He's just 58. Ruth, Margrit, Suzie, Bernard...their illnesses are different for each and every one of them. Are they locked away inside their bodies? Are they aware of their state of mind? Do they know where they are or who they are?

And if it happened to you? It's a frightening prospect, because it strikes at the very foundation of what we are: our mind, our discernment, our identity. The illness gorges on everything, swallowing a lifetime's memories. Everything becomes vague, to the point where we forget who we are, erasing our existence.

(Text and photos: Stéphanie Borcard, Nicolas Métraux, bm-photo.ch)