Korea’s senior citizens in peril
The author, a professor of psychology at the Seoul National University, is the president of the Korean Psychological Association. In 1993, when I was working as an intern psychologist in a small Midwestern city in the U.S., an elderly Korean American became one of my psychiatric outpatients. He was an old, neat gentleman with a professional background who had migrated a few years before. Because his eldest son’s business had failed and his wife had died, it was hard for him to live in Korea. He decided to migrate to the U.S., where his second son lived.
After a while, he left his son’s house and started living alone in a government-subsidized apartment. He came to the hospital to seek help for insomnia and depression. At the time in Korea, it was considered natural for children to support their elderly parents, and I still remember him complaining about his loneliness and anger at his son’s family not living with him and other struggles as an immigrant. Since the early 2000s, I have met many elderly people with similar stories in Korea.
According to a recent survey on the elderly by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, 78.2% of the elderly live alone or as couples. In a survey conducted by Statistics Korea, more than half of the people aged 65 or older were responsible for post-retirement living expenses for themselves and spouses. They said they thought the government — not their children — was responsible for supporting retirees. In just 30 years, the era has come that traditional family support for the elderly is not normal.
While this could be a desirable change to lessen excessive family obligations, it can also lead to a break in social relationships for the elderly, whose social connections had been family-centered. In fact, when asked whether they have someone to consult with when facing challenges, 90 percent of the elderly in the OECD member countries said yes. But only 64 percent of Korean elderly said yes. The lack of social support — and having none to consult about hardships — illustrates the psychological and social vulnerabilities of the elderly in Korea.
In recently released statistics on suicides, the rate is highest for the people in their 80s and older. A recent increase in suicide rates among people in their 60s and 70s shows that suicide is a growing problem among the elderly. But suicide prevention policies of the Korean government are quite different from those of OECD member countries, which overcame the suicide crisis first.
Earlier, OECD member countries have systematically investigated the subjective sense of well-being and quality of life and took them into consideration in devising policies. It’s a shame that Korea barely looked at these factors. Countries that had been industrialized before Korea paid attention to various social issues, including suicide and the correlation between psychological and social factors and subjective well-being. Investigation and research on this, and policy institutionalization based on that, are being systematically implemented.
For example, in the OECD “How’s Life” survey, the social support of the people of member countries is a key indicator. The stats and rankings of each country for age, gender and education level are published. Finland and the U.S. include the presence, or absence, of social support as a major variable in national surveys on suicide risk and prevention to help identify suicide risk factors and reflect them in policies.
In the social support statistics presented by the OECD, the elderly population among Koreans is the lowest in the member countries. This shows that the absence of social support may be important in the suicide rate of the elderly population. In recent studies of loneliness, the adverse effect on health in the elderly is observed most significantly than other age groups, and close relationship in mental health has been reported.
Perhaps Korea’s current elderly population is the first generation to support their parents and take responsibility for their own retirement. Korean society must not overlook the fact that a lack of social support is a factor as strong as financial preparedness for the Korean elderly.
As the Covid-19 crisis continues, dark clouds are gathering over the global economy. At this juncture, Korea’s elderly should not suffer further from social disconnection in addition to economic difficulties. The government and the National Assembly must pay attention to them and carefully improve the system.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
Copyright© 코리아중앙데일리. 무단전재 및 재배포 금지.
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