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Church population is aging fast

It is time for some real pastoral initiatives

Church population is aging fast
Gentle exercise before Mass for residents of Seocheon Amenity Village
Andrew Choi Jeong-geun, Seocheon

December 28, 2012

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I teach social welfare at a university. When I ask the students what they think social welfare means for elderly people, they unanimously answer that it means offering them employment.

That response makes me depressed. Why do young students perceive it that way? For many years, old people have contributed to their family, to society and the nation. They deserve a dignified evening of life. Why do the young ones think old people need to work more?

It is expected that in 2018, 14 percent of Korea’s population will be over 65, and more than 20 percent by 2026.

Clearly, we need to start discussing this to identify the problems and solutions.

We need to focus in particular on the ‘unable elderly’ who need to depend on others for reasons such as dementia, because their situation is especially difficult.

There has been some response. In 2007, South Korea started long-term care insurance for the elderly who have difficulty living alone. It provides beneficiaries at their own home or in some care facilities with nursing, cooking, laundry, cleaning and counseling services.

This new system has sparked a big change. Koreans are realizing that it is the responsibility of society as a whole, not just the family unit, to care for elderly people who cannot look after themselves.

Korea still maintains a strong Confucian tradition that places great value on respect for elders. So many feel guilt at the prospect of sending their aged parents to care homes, while the parents get angered at their children's "lack of filial piety."

Over the past five years, that attitude has changed greatly. Many now admit that a nuclear family system cannot endure this big burden alone.

The care system is not without its problems. It does not have enough finance to cover everyone who needs it and there are not enough facilities and resources yet, although the numbers are growing.

Another concern is that the services offered by the insurance are mostly physical ones, while people in their last stage of life have more mental and spiritual needs. I also work at a facility for long-term care, which has a priest and nun in residence to offer spiritual assistance. It brings a great deal of satisfaction that is rarely found elsewhere.

In this situation, the local Church in general seems rather indifferent to the long-term picture. But the Church population is aging even faster. According to 2011 statistics, there were 757,385 Catholics aged 65 and over, which is 14.6 percent of Catholics in South Korea.

Moreover, in the last decade, the number of Catholics aged 19 or under decreased by 24.4 percent, while those in their 70s increased by an astonishing 127.5 percent.

But while the Church has begun to see the need, there is not much evidence of real action.

Most dioceses have a dedicated, structured youth ministry but only two of the 15 dioceses in the country, Seoul archdiocese and Daejeon diocese, have offices for ministry to the elderly.

The one run by Seoul archdiocese is quite active, publishing books and organizing seminars, but its work is not well enough known to elderly people. Daejeon had a number of good programs but a lot of them are no longer operating.

The Church needs to start preparing to help its ever-aging population with proper pastoral initiatives, proper management and an emphasis on spiritual as well as medical services.

Elderly Catholics have contributed to the Church in various ways, just as they have to society. If society feels it is its duty to care for them, as it now does, then the Church must feel the same.

Andrew Choi Jeong-geun is a Catholic social welfare expert, vice-director of the Seochen-Gun Rehabilitation Center and adjunct professor at the Department of Social Welfare of Konyang University.

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