SULLY-SUR-LOIRE, France—A cure for Alzheimer's disease remains elusive, so officials here are testing better ways of caring for people with the most common form of dementia. Rather than just treating patients, they are trying to tackle the broader problems it causes.

Under a $2 billion plan launched in 2007, France is training doctors and nurses about the progressive brain disease, adding programs to support families affected by it, building new memory clinics for patients, and tracking progress more scientifically to determine the best and most cost-effective strategies.

"Alzheimer's is much more than a disease, it's a whole societal problem," said Florence Lustman, inspector general of finances and director of the national plan. "If you tackle it only through the medical prism, you will miss a number of dimensions of the topic."

The Hôpital Local de Sully-sur-Loire, the main medical center in an agricultural community of 70,000 people some 100 miles south of Paris, is one of the places testing the approach. The center has become a focus for the area's previously diffuse resources for roughly 250 Alzheimer's patients scattered among small towns near the Loire River, and has shown promising results, officials say.

In less than two years, the average stay of an Alzheimer's patient at the hospital has fallen to 12 days—two days less than the national average. Patients are moving more quickly to rehabilitation and back home, where many prefer to stay, officials say.

France's plan addresses the looming costs of caring for dementia patients. Aging populations and the failure of science to produce a cure for Alzheimer's mean governments face a ballooning burden.

In the U.S., some 5.4 million people have Alzheimer's, and by 2050 the number could reach 13 million people, needing roughly $1.1 trillion in long-term and hospice care, according to the U.S.-based Alzheimer's Association. World-wide, more than 115 million could suffer from the disease by 2050, according to Alzheimer's Disease International, an umbrella organization of Alzheimer's groups.

Britain and Cyprus have established national dementia plans, and the U.S., Switzerland and other countries have recently moved to create plans. The U.S. has pledged to increase federal funding for Alzheimer's research by 22% to roughly $560 million.

But few countries have taken France's broad view, boosting support for caregivers and patients while enhancing collaboration among social services. The goal is to keep patients out of hospitals and in their homes for as long as possible.

"France is a leader in this area," said Robert Egge, head of public policy at the Alzheimer's Association. The plan's comprehensiveness "is an inspiration to many countries," he said.

Because home care can tax families, France has launched an unusual and ambitious program of "respite care," which includes adult day care and home-based services that relieve families helping dementia patients. France has also established regional centers that coordinate Alzheimer's resources, giving families unified sources of information on services such as memory specialists and residential care facilities.

Five years in, efforts to increase and improve research have been most successful, Ms. Lustman said.

France has created databases of medical results and social issues—such as quality of life, psychological benefits of treatments and other nonmedical improvements—to help researchers assess approaches. It has also boosted the number of experimental drug trials for Alzheimer's disease, said Sandrine Lemery, policy officer of the national plan.

Helping families with Alzheimer's sufferers has been a bigger challenge because much of the available temporary care isn't high-quality and hasn't been very effective, said Ms. Lustman. Supporting families is critical to keeping dementia patients out of hospitals, where the cost of caring for them is higher.

Another challenge has been finding specialists and training generalists across France.

Hôpital Sully-sur-Loire, for example, struggled to find qualified personnel and resources, said hospital director Rudy Lanchais. Establishing three regional offices took longer than planned.

Today, social workers and hospital staff talk sooner after patients arrive at the hospital so the patients can be moved quickly to less-intensive care. To improve communication, many resources were moved together in the coordinating center.

Still, educating overtaxed local doctors about the disease and available resources has been difficult.

The average French general practitioner has seven Alzheimer's patients but 300 patients with diabetes, said Benoît Lavallart, a physician and project manager with the French national Alzheimer Plan.

"The GPs see the problem but don't imagine the solution," he said.

The team at Sully-sur-Loire tries to lure doctors to educational sessions with promises of food—small pizzas and sweets like miniature mince pies. But on a recent Tuesday evening, only 40 of 100 invited doctors attended a three-hour session, Dr. Lanchais said.

A more popular effort has been the creation of support groups for families with Alzheimer's sufferers, organized in local pubs and an adult day-care center near the hospital.

For €20 (about $26) a day, patients do memory-boosting activities like crossword puzzles and knitting, then shop and prepare lunch together.

The goal is that "everyone has a little bit of responsibility," said Cécile Coret, a regional coordinator.

But the day-care facility can accommodate only a small number of patients and some families can't afford even the modest fee, Dr. Lanchais said.