Statistics Korea data shows that 1 in 5 seniors aged 65 or over are living alone. The number of senior citizens living in solitude has continued to increase over the past decade, and the future growth is projected to be more rapid.
And some local demographers predict that by 2035, 15.4 percent of all households will be seniors who live alone.
The seriousness of the situation is evident from a survey by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, which found that more than 4 out of every 10 seniors are undergoing symptoms of depression.
Depression has been frequently linked with suicide in society. More than 55 per 100,000 Koreans aged 65 or over take their own lives each year -- the highest level among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Many of them fall into poverty because they are unable to earn enough and lack a social safety net. In addition, the transformation of the family system -- including favoring a nuclear family and increase in one-person households -- and reduced willingness by the young to support their parents are adding to the woes of Korea’s seniors.
Poverty among the elderly has been blamed for the growing rate of senior citizen suicide here. According to the Korea Labor Institute, 48.6 percent of the country’s senior citizens were living in poverty in 2014, defined as living off 50 percent or less of median household income. And they often resort to extreme means like suicide.
Aside from their economic difficulties, seriousness is also seen from the sharp rise in cases of elderly abuse. The number of reported cases of elderly abuse increased from 264 in 2009 to 3,411 in 2011 and 3,520 in 2014.
More than 80 percent of the cases tallied last year were committed by family members. Elderly abuse at care facilities has also increased at an alarming pace in recent years, as they are accommodating a growing number of senior people.
In a survey of 10,452 senior citizens, conducted by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, about 10 percent of the respondents said they had experienced physical, emotional and other forms of abuse over the past year.
Government officials, politicians and media make a fuss whenever the problems of an aging society manifest themselves -- like discovery of a body of a senior citizen who had been living alone or elderly parents who are abused by their adult children. The current situation tells us that they have done little to fix the fundamental problem.
More effective policies to protect senior citizens, both socially and legally, should be carried out. Otherwise, longer life spans may be more of a curse than a blessing to a great proportion of Koreans in the coming decades.