January 27, 2023

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South Korea’s middle-aged men die ‘lonely death’

Eureka News Now —

South Korea has a problem: thousands of people, many middle-aged and isolated, die alone each year, often going undetected for days or weeks.

This is “godoksa,” or “lonely deaths,” a common phenomenon that the government has been trying to combat for years as the population ages rapidly.

According to South Korean law, a “lonely death” is when someone living alone, cut off from family or relatives, dies by suicide or illness and their body is not found for “a specified period of time”.

The issue has garnered national attention over the past decade as the number of lonely deaths has increased. Factors behind the trend include the country’s demographic crisis, social gaps, poverty and social isolation – all intensified since the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last year, the country recorded 3,378 such deaths, up from 2,412 in 2017, according to a report released by the Department of Health and Social Care last Wednesday.

The department’s report was the first since the government passed the Lonely Death Prevention and Management Act in 2021, which requires updates every five years to help set “guidance to prevent lonely deaths”.

Although lone deaths affect people from different demographics, the report showed that middle-aged and older men appear to be particularly at risk.

The number of men suffering a lonely death was 5.3 times that of women in 2021, up from four times before.

People in their 50s and 60s accounted for up to 60% of lonely deaths over the past year, with a large number also being in their 40s and 70s. People in their 20s and 30s accounted for 6% to 8%.

The report did not address possible causes. But the phenomenon has been studied for years as authorities try to understand what drives these lonely deaths and how to better support vulnerable people.

“In preparation for an aging society, there is a need to actively respond to lonely deaths,” South Korea’s legislative research agency said in a press release earlier this year, adding that the government’s priority is “quickly identifying instances of social isolation.” ”

South Korea is one of several Asian countries — including Japan and China — facing demographic declines as people have fewer babies and give birth later in life.

The country’s birth rate has been falling steadily since 2015, with experts blaming various factors such as the demanding work culture, rising cost of living and stagnant wages for people delaying parenthood. At the same time, the workforce is shrinking, raising fears that there will not be enough workers to support the growing number of older people in areas such as health care and domestic help.

Some of the consequences of this skewed age distribution are becoming apparent as millions of aging residents struggle to survive on their own.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, more than 43% of Koreans over the age of 65 lived below the poverty line in 2016 – more than three times the national average in other OECD countries.

The lives of middle-aged and elderly Koreans “deteriorate rapidly” when they are excluded from the labor and housing markets, and it is “a leading cause of death,” Song In-joo, a senior research fellow at the Seoul Welfare Center, wrote in a 2000 study 2021 about lonely deaths.

The study analyzed nine cases of lonely deaths and conducted in-depth interviews with their neighbors, landlords and clerks.

South Korea’s middle-aged men die ‘lonely death’

One case involved a 64-year-old worker who died of alcoholic liver disease a year after losing his job due to disability. He had no education, family or even a cell phone. In another case, an 88-year-old woman found herself in financial distress after the death of her son. She died after the elderly care center she attended, which offered free meals, closed early in the pandemic.

“The difficulties voiced before death by those at risk of dying alone were health issues, economic difficulties, separation and rejection, and difficulties in coping with daily life,” Song wrote.

Added to this were late state aid and a “lack of home care” for people with serious or chronic illnesses.

The 2021 study’s findings were echoed in the Department of Health and Social Care report, which said many of those at risk found their life satisfaction “decreased rapidly because of job loss and divorce” — particularly when they were “with health care and household chores were unfamiliar.”

Many of the people in the 2021 study lived in cramped, dingy spaces like partitioned apartments known as jjokbang, where residents often share communal facilities, and basement apartments known as banjiha, which made headlines earlier this year as one family was trapped while record rain drowned in Seoul.

In major cities like Seoul, these apartments are among the cheapest options available due to the notoriously expensive housing market. And apart from the poor living conditions, they also bear the risk of further isolation; These housing structures “have already been criticized as slums … and are also stigmatized” because many residents live “anonymously,” according to the 2021 study.

“It’s concerning because the (housing concentration) of lonely deaths may be another feature of the poverty subculture,” Song wrote.

Increasing public concern about lonely deaths has led to various regional and national initiatives over the years.

In 2018, the Seoul metropolitan government announced a “neighborhood watcher” program, in which community members visit single-person households in vulnerable areas such as basements and apartment buildings, according to Yonhap News Agency.

Under this plan, hospitals, landlords and grocery store workers play the role of “watchmen,” alerting community workers when patients or regular customers are not seen for an extended period of time, or when rent and other fees are not paid.

Several cities, including Seoul, Ulsan and Jeonju, have launched mobile apps for those living alone that automatically send a message to an emergency contact if the phone is idle for a period of time.

Other organizations such as churches and non-profit organizations have also increased their outreach and community events – and take care of funeral rites for the deceased who have no one left to claim or mourn.

The Lonely Death Prevention and Management Act, passed last year, was the latest and most far-reaching measure to direct local governments to establish policies to identify and assist vulnerable residents. In addition to preparing the five-year situation report, she also called on the government to draw up a comprehensive prevention plan, which is still a work in progress.

Employees and a volunteer Buddhist nun of a non-profit organization carry the name plaques of the deceased

In another study released in November, Song recommended authorities create more support systems for those trying to get back on their feet, including education, training and counseling programs for the middle-aged and elderly.

In a press release accompanying Wednesday’s report, Health and Welfare Minister Cho Kyu-hong said South Korea is working to “become like other countries, including the United Kingdom and Japan, which have recently adopted policies… (to quote ) to deal with lonely deaths. ”

“This analysis makes sense as a first step for central and local governments to responsibly deal with this crisis of a new welfare blind spot,” he said.