South Koreans face lonely deaths as Confucian traditions fade

When South Korean widow Yoon Sook-hee, 62, died after a bout of pneumonia in mid-January, she joined a growing number of old people in this Asian country who die alone and was cremated only thanks to the charity of people who never knew her.

Once a country where filial duty and a strong Confucian tradition saw parents revered, modern day South Korea, with a population of 50 million, has grown economically richer, but family ties have fragmented. Nowadays 1.2 million elderly South Koreans, just over 20 percent of the elderly population, live - and increasingly die - alone.

Yoon's former husband, whom she divorced 40 years ago, relinquished responsibility after being contacted by the hospital and told of her death. Her only son was unreachable as he had long broken off all contact with his parents.

"There are many elderly people who are incredibly depressed because they don't have a place to put their bodies after they die," said Kang Bong-hee, representative of a federation of funeral directors that manages funerals free of charge for those who are unable to afford their own.

"They collect what little money they have and they come and ask us what to do (with their bodies) after they die."

Kang was one of the volunteers who put together a makeshift funeral for Yoon, with most of the funds coming out of his own pocket.

South Korea is ageing at the fastest pace of all industrial nations, with the proportion of elderly rising to 11.8 percent of the population in 2012, up from 7.2 percent in 2002 and just 3.8 percent in 1980.

A report from the Welfare Ministry published in May last year predicted the ratio would grow to 15.7 percent in 2020 and to 24.3 percent in 2030, thanks to a declining birthrate that has dropped from six per woman of childbearing age to just one.


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 glamorous.

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 neighborhood.

"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."