S. Koreans face lonely deaths as traditions fade

Updated: 2013-01-21 14:27


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Poverty adjacent to "Gangnam style"

While South Korea and Seoul were catapulted onto the global map by rapper Psy's "Gangnam Style" hit featuring the affluent suburb south of the Han River, the reality for older people is far less glamourous.

A toilet is the first thing you see when you step into 73-year-old Kong Kyung-soon's tiny apartment. It has barely two square meters of living space despite being adjacent to Gangnam.

Kong, who boils water in a rice cooker to save money, divorced more than 30 years ago after her husband was caught having a string of affairs. A love child, she says, was the final straw.

"If I get sick, it will just be the end for me," she said, adding she pays 360,000 won ($340) a month for rent and living costs out of the roughly 500,000 won she gets from government welfare checks and public transportation subsidies.

She is one of 234,000 elderly South Koreans, or 19.7 percent of all those over 65 years old, living alone as of last year, who were living on government welfare. No data is available on what percent of those are female.

When asked why she didn't ask for help from her children, Kong said times have changed and she should care for herself.

"Whenever I tell my sister I want to die, she tells me I can after I make 500,000 won for my funeral expenses," said Kong, wiping tears from her eyes. Her sister, two years her senior, lives with her husband in another neighbourhood.

"I have prayed to the Lord that I will do good if he can spare me just 10,000 won."

The South Korean government tries to help, but in a nation where welfare spending came at second lowest among OECD countries in 2009, resources are limited.

It passed its first wide-ranging law on welfare for the elderly in 1981, focusing on the early detection and treatment of illnesses as well as the well-being of the elderly.

Services that send a caretaker to visit the home of elderly people living alone at least once a week started in 2007. These caretakers usually keep in contact with an average of 30 elderly citizens and are instructed to call them frequently.

Local governments in some areas take a more subtle approach by leaving small bottles of popular yogurt drinks at front doors every day. If unopened bottles start piling up, it's usually a bad sign.

Still, that doesn't address the main problem of the old, Kang said.

"From where I see it, the elderly just want someone to talk to. What's most important about elderly welfare is to prevent them from feeling lonely."

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