Middle-aged men in South Korea are dying ‘lonely deaths’


South Korea has a problem: Thousands of people, many middle-aged and isolated, die alone every year, often undiscovered for days or weeks.

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

Under South Korean law, a “lonely death” is when someone who lives alone, separated from family or relatives, dies due to suicide or illness, and their body is found only after “a certain amount of of time”.

The issue has gained national attention over the past decade as the number of lonely deaths has increased. Factors behind the trend include the country’s demographic crisis, gaps in social welfare, poverty, and social isolation, all of which have become more pronounced 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 last Wednesday by the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

The ministry’s report was the first since the government enacted the Lonely Death Prevention and Management Law in 2021, according to which updates are required every five years to help establish “policies to prevent lonely deaths.”

Staff of a non-profit organization, which organizes funerals for the deceased.

Although lonely deaths affect people from various demographic groups, the report showed that middle-aged and elderly men appear to be particularly at risk.

The number of men who suffered lonely deaths was 5.3 times higher than that of women in 2021, up from four times before.

People in their 50s and 60s accounted for up to 60% of lonely deaths last year, with large numbers also in their 40s and 70s. People between the ages of 20 and 30 accounted for 6% to 8%.

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

“In preparation for a super-aging society, it is necessary to actively respond to lonely deaths,” South Korea’s legislative research body said in a statement. a press release earlier this year, adding that the government’s priority was to “quickly identify cases of social isolation.”

South Korea is one of several Asian countries, including Japan and China, facing a demographic decline, with people having fewer babies and giving birth later in life.

The country birth rate it’s been falling steadily since 2015, with experts blaming various factors including a demanding work culture, rising cost of living and stagnant wages for turning people away from parenthood. At the same time, the workforce is shrinking, raising fears that there won’t be enough workers to support the growing elderly population in fields like health care and home care.

Some of the consequences of this skewed age distribution are becoming apparent, with millions of residents aging fighting to survive on your own.

As of 2016, more than 43% of Koreans over the age of 65 were below the poverty line, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, more than triple the national average for other OECD countries.

The lives of middle-aged and elderly Koreans “deteriorate rapidly” if they are excluded from the labor and housing markets, and this is “one of the leading causes of death,” wrote Song In-joo, a senior researcher at the Center for Seoul Wellness, in a 2021 study on lonely deaths.

The study analyzed nine cases of lonely death and conducted in-depth interviews with their neighbors, landlords, and social workers.

A volunteer pastor prays before a makeshift shrine for two people who died

One case involved a 64-year-old worker who died of alcohol-related liver disease, one 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 suffered financial hardship after the death of her son. She died after the senior welfare center she attended, which provided free meals, closed at the start of the pandemic.

“Difficulties expressed before death by those at risk of dying alone were health problems, financial difficulties, disconnection and rejection, and difficulties managing daily life,” Song wrote.

Aggravating factors included delayed government assistance and a “lack of home care” for people with serious or chronic illnesses.

The findings of the 2021 study were echoed in the Ministry of Health and Welfare report, which said many of those at risk noted their life satisfaction “declining rapidly due to job loss and divorce,” especially if “they were not familiar with health care and housework”. .”

Many of the people in the 2021 study lived in cramped, dreary spaces, such as subdivided apartments known as jjokbang, where residents often share common facilities, and basement apartments known as banjiha, which made headlines earlier this year when a family was trapped and drowned during record rainfall in Seoul.

In major cities like Seoul, the notoriously expensive real estate market means that these apartments are some of the most affordable options available. And in addition to poor living conditions, they also carry the risk of further isolation; these housing structures “have already been criticized as slums… and are stigmatized as well,” with many residents living “anonymous” lives, the 2021 study said.

“It is worrisome because the (housing concentration) of lonely deaths could be another feature of the subculture of poverty,” Song wrote.

Growing public concern about lonely deaths has prompted several regional and national initiatives over the years.

In 2018, Seoul metropolitan The government announced a “neighborhood watch” program, in which community members visit single-person households in vulnerable areas, such as basements and subdivided houses, according to the Yonhap news agency.

Under this plan, hospitals, convenience store owners and staff play the role of “watchdogs,” notifying community workers when patients or regular customers are not seen for a long 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, which 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 stepped up outreach services and community events, as well as handling funeral rites for the deceased who have no one to claim or mourn them.

The Lonely Death Prevention and Management Act passed last year was the latest and most comprehensive measure yet, directing local governments to establish policies to identify and assist residents at risk. In addition to establishing the five-year situation report, it also required the government to draw up a comprehensive preventive plan, which is still in process.

The staff and a volunteer Buddhist nun from a non-profit organization carry the tablets with the names of the people who passed away

In another study published in November, Song recommended authorities create more support systems for those trying to recover, including education, training and counseling programs for the middle-aged and elderly.

In a press release Accompanying Wednesday’s report, Minister of Health and Welfare Cho Kyu-hong He said South Korea was working to “be like other countries, including the UK and Japan, which have recently launched strategies… (to deal with) lonely deaths.”

“This analysis is significant as the first step for central and local governments to responsibly address this crisis of a new welfare blind spot,” he said.

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