On March 6, as a cold rain fell down, reporters from The UOS Times met Han So-young(a volunteer working with the elderly) to take us to meet an elderly but solitary woman, Jang Eun-suk. We greeted So-young at a subway station but we had to go up through a traditional market to find Mrs. Jang’s house.
When we had barely found her house, the reporter was surprised because she lived in such poor surroundings. The room had not been heated for the whole time of last winter, so she lived with biting cold and solitude in her leased house which costs 8 million won deposit.
Mrs. Jang said to us “I would rather die early.” I replied “I hope you live a long life.” Then she told me if she gets older she will get sick and no one will be able to take care of her. That is why she was afraid of getting older.
Although she lives in a small and dark room, she looks bright because So-young makes her laugh and visits her as often as possible. The reporter found Mrs. Jang was so wise as she was talking to us about difficult problems in life.
Mrs. Jang suffered under the Japanese colonization. She got married early to avoid being taken away by the Japanese army as a comfort woman. She could not get enough food because of the food shortages during the war which Japan brought about.
She lost her husband and two sons early. After that, she started smoking to overcome the sadness.
One of her greatest pleasures is to meet volunteers. On winter nights, they sometimes bring her some soup that is easy on her bad teeth. So-young said visiting Mrs. Jang is not a hard thing but the reporter felt moved by her kind heart.
These days the number of elderly people who live alone is increasing. Besides they usually don’t have their family, these lonely people often suffer from poverty. They also have mental stress, such as loneliness, so that sometimes they want to die early.
Mrs. Jang¡¯s desire is to rest her frail weak body in a warm house. But it is impossible to move to a new house with 8 million won deposit.
Besides, several years later, she will lose the house she lives. And she cannot go to the hospital whenever she wants because of a change in government¡¯s health insurance policy. If she exceeds a maximum limit set by the government, she must pay her medical fee by herself. So-young told us volunteers want to pay for her medicine, but she refuses the offer and instead reduces the number of times she goes to the hospital.
Because the older generation were born into a traditional society, they believed their children would support them. As society became industrialized, the nuclear family system got entrenched. In the end, children started living apart from their parents.
Living without their parents often made these children less concerned about them. When the IMF crisis occurred, some children abandoned their parents because of financial difficulties. The older generation, who had devoted their youth to raising their children, despaired. They did not have a pension or insurance like other countries have. Instead they had sold their cows and houses for their children’s education, thinking their children would support them later!
The development of medical technology is extending human life. But, as you know, our society is getting older. The growing proportion of elderly people will make economic advancement difficult. Within a few years, there will be 3 young people having to support one old person.
The birth rate is slowing down but the elderly population(who need support from the young) is growing. The growing burden on the young and the major dissatisfaction felt by the elderly about the young, are likely to bring about serious conflict in society.
The Korean government started introducing welfare for senior citizens from the early 90s. The contents of the new policy included free use of public transportation for those over 77. In 1998, the government started giving financial support to low income old people for medical expenses and living costs.
These benefits are meager in comparison with advanced countries’ welfare systems. Some countries provide totally free medical services to those over 65, and senior citizens center activities help old people get involved in hobbies. They even go as far as advising retirees on investment to help make their lives more comfortable financially.
The elderly, the government and younger people should work together to make plans for the future step by step and they must negotiate to find a rational solution. For example, if the government makes more jobs for the elderly, they will not be totally dependent on the younger generations’ productive capacity.
The younger generation should realize that they will get old someday, and do their best to work to build the national economic foundation for the support of the elderly. The older generations’ wisdom, combined with the younger generation’s productivity, will provide the only solution to overcome this difficult problem.