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A lonely end to life for more South Koreans

Number of elderly Koreans living alone has quadrupled

Yang Sun-seon is one of millions of elderly Koreans who live alone (photo by Francesca Shin) Yang Sun-seon is one of millions of elderly Koreans who live alone (photo by Francesca Shin)
  • Francesca Shin, Gunsan
  • Korea
  • September 21, 2012
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Yang Sun-seon lives alone in a rented apartment of just 23 sq.ms. She is 87 years old.

Her husband died when she was young, as did her son, one of two children. The only living member of Yang’s close family, her daughter, is often busy looking after her mother-in-law, she says.

One time, when she was feeling really sick, she called her daughter who said she was too busy to come over, suggesting instead that Yang call 119 for an ambulance.

“For the future, she asked me to call not her but the rescue services in case of an emergency,” she said.

Yang is one of more than two million South Koreans over the age of 65 living alone, a number which has more than quadrupled since the turn of the millennium.

Press reports in the country are increasingly telling stories of old people dying alone.

On a freezing day in February last year, a 65-year-old woman and a 55-year-old man were both found dead on the same day in the same apartment building in the northwestern city of Asan. Family members said they had not spoken to them for days.

“When I heard such news, I was afraid that I would be one of them,” said Yang, whose regular respite from loneliness comes on Sundays, when she can make it to her nearby church.

“I am at my happiest when my parish priest wishes me good health, holding my hands,” she said.

A resident of the western port city of Gunsan, Yang has watched her home town transform from a thriving fishing port into a center for car production for multinational automakers including Chevrolet and  General Motors.

It typifies the rapid industrial progress which has transformed the way South Koreans live their lives in what was once a traditional society centered around the extended family.

Researchers say this family structure, based on fishing and farming within a small area, has disintegrated as young people have left home, moved to bigger cities and started to work in offices and factories, returning to homes surrounded by neighbors they may never get to know. It is a situation not dissimilar to other rapidly industrializing societies.

In 1975, when the economic gap between the South and the Communist North was slight, 40 percent of South Korean houses were home to six or more people, a number which plummeted to just over three percent in 2000. By the start of last year, more than four million homes were occupied by just one person, almost 25 percent of the total.

Part of the problem is demographic. Smaller families mean fewer children to take care of their parents, a trend that is only just beginning.

Government data shows the elderly generation still has an average of well over three children. But less than 35 percent of these children keep in regular contact with their elderly parents, according to a recent survey.

In an age when children are busy and distanced from their elderly parents’ homes, Han suggests an answer which has already become standard practice in many countries, particularly in the West – social workers and volunteer helpers, a solution which requires money.

In 2010, a survey found 23 percent of those over 65 received financial support from the government or social institutions, while nearly 44 percent of the elderly received funding from their children, a sign that human interactions from times past has given way to a hands-off, monetary relationship between generations.

The government has decided to “build management systems especially for elderly people who do not have contact with their family,” said Kim Jong-duck, the head of seniors’ policy at the Ministry of Health and Welfare

It announced an elderly support plan in May in a bid to address the problem.

But the government cannot help the elderly alone, he added: Addressing this growing problem in South Korea would require “cooperation from the whole of society.”

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