Field Notes

S. Korea's growing problem of elderly poor

Seniors struggle to survive as tradition of the young caring for the old is dying out amid flagging economy and high living costs

Every morning, be it rain, shine or snow, 81-year-old Im Kwi Ho would travel for an hour on the subway from his home in the western city of Gimpo to Jongmyo Park in central Seoul 18km away, to spend time with his friends there.

On some days, they would join a queue to get free lunch at a nearby charity kitchen.

"I come here every day, 365 days a year. There's lots to do here, like chatting with friends or playing a game of Korean chess, and we can get free meals sometimes," says Mr Im with a hearty laugh.

It's a laugh that belies the harsh realities of ageing in a country where the life expectancy is one of the world's highest at 82.4 years but the fertility rate is one of the world's lowest at 1.21 children per woman, and where the tradition of the young caring for the old is ebbing away amid a flagging economy and high living costs.

Elderly men hanging out at Jongmyo Park in central Seoul, some playing a game of Korean chess. More than 100 of them were spotted at the park on a rainy Thursday. PHOTOS: KIM JINHA

After decades of hard work to build Asia's fourth-largest economy with a per capita GDP of US$27,970 (S$39,500), South Korea's elderly are struggling to survive with little savings and high debts.

Nearly half of the country's 6.4 million senior citizens aged 65 and above live in poverty, according to government data.

Those aged 60 and above also have the highest household debt burden among 15 advanced countries, a recent study by the Korea Development Institute (KDI) showed. Their debt-to-income ratio of 161 per cent is the result of a poor pension scheme and the habit of delaying housing loan repayments until after retirement, said the think-tank.

Mr Im, who lives with his wife and daughter, shakes his head when asked if he has enough money to get by. He has not worked for more than 30 years. He has no pension. The money that he had scrimped and saved from years of working as a construction worker has run out.

Elderly men hanging out at Jongmyo Park in central Seoul, some playing a game of Korean chess. More than 100 of them were spotted at the park on a rainy Thursday.
Angel Free Food Service opposite Jongmyo Park in Seoul, one of 26 charity kitchens around the country operated by the privately run National Volunteer Federation, which provides meals to 6,000 seniors.

He says his two children give him some cash, and he gets 130,000 won (S$155) every month in disability claims from the government for his knee injuries. He spends it mostly on food - a bowl of noodles costs around 3,000 won in the neighbourhood of Jongmyo.

"Life is hard. The government should take better care of us, but their excuse is always that they don't have enough money," he laments.

The administration of President Park Geun Hye had promised in 2013 to provide broader welfare to the young and old without a tax hike, but has shown limited result, given the stagnating economy.

A basic pension programme was launched last year to give up to 200,000 won to people aged 65 and above whose income bracket falls within the lowest 70 per cent. Low-income earners are often defined as those who take home less than 250,000 won a month.

By the end of last year, nearly 67 per cent of all the elderly, or 4.35 million of them, were receiving a basic pension, the Health Ministry said. Over 93 per cent of them receive the maximum amount of 200,000 won, but critics say the money is barely enough to cover living expenses, not to mention healthcare.

Odd-job worker Chung Chang Gil (left), 63, has been living out of two suitcases for two years. Mr Chang In Soo (right), 83, has been visiting Jongmyo Park to meet friends since his wife died two years ago.

Proposals to raise the retirement age from 65 to 70 have been criticised as the government trying to stint on welfare spending.


Ms Yun Hee Suk, director of KDI's public finance and social policy department, says: "The government is trying to address the issue, but the problem is that Korea is ageing too fast and the physical condition of the elderly is deteriorating too quickly. It's not easy to put a lot of money in elderly welfare, we have to find the right policies."

Time is not on their side.

In May, the government revealed that senior citizens in Seoul have outnumbered children for the first time. There were 1,234,181 people aged 65 and above living in the capital city, slightly higher than the under-15 age group figure of 1,232,194.

If the elderly population in Seoul continues to grow by about 60,000 a year, they will make up 14 per cent of the total population in the capital city by 2018, according to estimates.

The figure for the whole country is set to be even higher, with projections that senior citizens will comprise 24.3 per cent of the total population by 2030 - similar to Singapore and Taiwan - and 32.3 per cent by 2040. This would create a big burden for the workforce that is shrinking due to low fertility rates.

It is also worrying to see that about 74 per cent of these poverty-stricken elderly folk live alone, and many of them are not socially active and have no social support.

Figures from Statistics Korea show that 39 per cent of all Koreans aged 85 and above, as well as 55.7 per cent of unmarried elderly folk and 47.8 per cent of elderly divorcees, live in isolation.

Loneliness has been cited as a main reason for suicide by senior citizens. They have the highest suicide rate in the country, with 50.3 out of every 100,000 elderly folk killing themselves, compared with the national average of 29.1.

A study this year by the Korea Institute of Criminology shows that elderly men are especially prone to suicide, partly due to a loss of social status and economic power, illness and loneliness. The most vulnerable group was men in their 80s, followed by those in their 70s and 60s.

Some poverty-stricken old folk have been forced to live in the streets. There were 12,656 homeless people of all ages as of 2013.

Odd-job worker Chung Chang Gil, 63, has been living out of two suitcases for two years. This reporter found him resting in a corner of Yongsan Station, a major railway station which provides shelter to dozens of homeless men at night, especially in winter.

He says he has been travelling around the country to look for his parents, who abandoned him when he was a baby. He would find temporary work in warmer months, but has stopped since the weather turned cold.

Mr Chung, who never married, now survives on monthly disability claims of 220,000 won, for injuries he suffered on the right side of his body while doing construction work. He spends the money mainly on food. "I don't drink or smoke. I have no friends. I'd write every day to record my life," he says.

When asked if he is worried about his future, he replies: "No, I just want to find my parents if I can."

Mr Ham Ik Soo, 62, has also been living in the streets for two years. He left his son's house after he divorced his wife. "Life is hard, but I'd rather live by myself. I can still find work to do, so I'm okay," he tells The Straits Times at Seoul Station, another major railway station, where he was spotted alongside three other homeless men.


Elderly folk rejoining the workforce have contributed to an increase in the number of temporary workers in South Korea. In August, there were about 1.32 million people aged 60 and above engaged in temporary work, an 11.1 per cent hike from the year before.

More senior citizens have to fend for themselves now, with the erosion of Confucian values and the tradition of children taking care of their parents in old age. Government polls show that the percentage of children who are willing to look after their parents has declined sharply, from 90 per cent to 37 per cent over the past 15 years.

"The older generation lived through hard times and they are poor compared to the younger generation, but the young take it for granted that they don't have to care for their parents," says Ms Yun.

As of 2012, 103,973 elderly Koreans lived in 4,079 nursing homes, according to the Health Ministry. These figures are expected to grow steadily in the future, as family bonds weaken and the demand for such long-term care rises. In 2001, only 7,864 elderly folk lived in 128 nursing homes. The increase is attributed to the country's rapidly ageing population in a Woosuk University study published in 2013.

The government introduced a long-term care insurance system in 2008 to ease the burden on home caregivers and improve the quality of life for the elderly.

It has also been encouraging senior citizens to remain economically active, setting up elderly support centres in key districts in Seoul to create customised jobs for retirees and organise activities for them. The centres also provide free meals and aid to the poor and frail.

There is also help from more ground-up initiatives, like the Korea Legacy Committee that was founded in July by eight young professionals led by senior corporate development director Mike Kim.

The organisation has raised 3 million won from two fundraising events for the Seoul Senior Welfare Centre, and Mr Kim said they plan to expand next year to involve thousands of young people donating money or volunteering at the welfare centre. "We are able to enjoy our lives now because of sacrifices that our grandparents' generation made for us. It's our responsibility to give back to them," he said.

Separately, the privately run National Volunteer Federation operates 26 charity kitchens around the country to provide free meals to 6,000 senior citizens.

The kitchen in Seoul, named Angel Free Food Service, can be found opposite Jongmyo Park. A staff member, who declined to be named, says they provide lunch to 300 elderly folk on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. They serve oxtail soup, seaweed, kimchi, acorn jelly and rice.

"Our menu is catered to the needs of the elderly. For example, oxtail soup is good for their knees," she says. She declined to reveal the cost of each meal, but oxtail soup can easily cost 10,000 won at eateries.

Mr Chang In Soo, 83, raves about the oxtail soup when approached by The Straits Times, calling it the best he has eaten. The retiree, who lives with his son's family, has been visiting Jongmyo Park to meet friends since his wife died two years ago.

Retiring from construction work five years ago, Mr Chang gets a basic pension of 200,000 won a month, and his daughter-in-law gives him an allowance too. "I have to ration my spending because the money is not enough, but I'd rather be thrifty because greed knows no bounds."

When asked if he thinks his pension should be raised, he says: "I don't wish for it, but if I do get more money, I'd give it to my two grand-daughters who are in university. It's more important to be happy and thankful for what you have."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2015, with the headline 'S. Korea's growing problem of elderly poor'. Subscribe