Friday, 13 October 2023 15:25

Silent Struggles: Unraveling Koreas Startling Elderly Suicide Surge

An image illustrating the ‘No-senior zone’ in a Korean café. Credit: The Nation

SEOUL, Oct 13 (IPS) — In this, the fourth of IPS’ Youth Thought Leaders series, the author looks at suicide rates in older persons and concludes we should break barriers and celebrate the diversity each generation brings.Growing up in a culture that values respect for elders, I was acutely aware of the importance of caring for our aging population. However, my journey to understanding the gravity of this issue truly began with a personal anecdote. I watched my grandmother, a pillar of strength throughout my childhood, gradually withdraw from the vibrant world in which she once thrived. The cheerful twinkle in her eyes began to dim, replaced by an eerie sense of isolation.

This experience opened my eyes to a stark reality: a disturbing surge in elderly suicide rates hidden beneath the facade of cultural reverence for seniors in Korea and Japan. In 2021, these rates reached 61.3 deaths per 100,000 people in Korea, primarily driven by profound social isolation.

Suicide deaths in Korea. Credit: Statista
Suicide deaths in Korea. Credit: Statista

Some may argue that these figures are insignificant, but the persistence of a high suicide rate cannot be dismissed. Moreover, they are poised to become even more critical as we approach a world where, according to WHO, the elderly population over the age of 60 is expected to double by 2050, and those 80 years or older are projected to triple.

So how severe are the elderly suicide rates due to isolation in Korea and Japan? Well, research highlights that this is due to the significant rise in the elderly population. Such an increase has been concurrent with the rising elderly suicide rates. The Global Burden of Disease study emphasizes that the global elderly suicide rate is almost triple the suicide rates across all other age groups. For example, in South Korea alone, there has been a 300% increase in elderly suicide rates.

If the world’s elderly population has increased overall, why is it that the elderly suicide rates within Korea and Japan have been especially severe? This was particularly confusing as I believed that due to cultural and social standards of filial piety and respecting your elders, such suicide rates would be low. However, I found the answer to my own question when I visited Korea in July this year.

When I arrived in the country, one of the first things I did was to visit a cafe to meet with a friend. However, as I was about to enter the cafe, I saw a group of elderly men and women leaving the cafe while comforting each other, saying, “It’s okay; it’s not the first time we’ve been rejected.” As I later found out, this was because the cafe was a ‘no-senior zone.’

Similar to how some places are designated as ‘no-kid zones,’ this cafe, and others, did not allow people over the age of 60 to enter. According to Lee Min-ah at Chung-Ang University, “The continuous emergence of ‘no-something zones’ in our society means that exclusion among groups is increasing, while efforts to understand each other are disappearing.”

I also discovered that age discrimination is also present in other aspects of the elderly’s life, more specifically, in the workplace. According to a survey by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, in 2018, 59 percent of the Korean elderly found it difficult to be employed due to age restrictions, and a further 44 percent experienced ageism within their workplace. The increase in discrimination against the elderly has heightened their sense of isolation, eventually leading to cases of suicide in extreme circumstances.

Jung Soon Park, the Secretary General of World Smart Sustainable Cities Organization (WeGo) with the author Hyunsung (Julie) Lee.
Jung Soon Park, the Secretary General of World Smart Sustainable Cities Organization (WeGo) with the author Hyunsung (Julie) Lee.
Interview with Jung Soon Park, the Secretary General of WeGo at the Seoul Global Center
Interview with Jung Soon Park, the Secretary General of WeGo at the Seoul Global Center

I wanted to learn more about the current action being taken to help the elderly feel more included in our society, as I believed this would be key to preventing isolation-related suicide cases. To gain further insight, I decided to interview Jung Soon Park, the Secretary General of the World Smart Sustainable Cities Organization (WeGo).

WeGo is an international association of local governments, smart tech solution providers, and institutions committed to transforming cities worldwide into smart and sustainable cities through partnerships. I believe that by interviewing the Secretary General of WeGo, I would be able to learn more about the specific solutions that governments and organizations are implementing collaboratively.

Through my interview, I gained an understanding that the South Korean government and social organizations are currently focusing on addressing age discrimination, recognizing it as a key factor in isolationism.

Park mentioned that one specific approach to resolving this issue involves the use of ‘meta spaces’ and technological wristbands. She emphasized that in today’s technology-driven world, enabling the elderly to adapt to such technology could bridge the generation gap between the younger and older generations. She further explained that meta spaces, allowing for anonymous communication, and technological wristbands, which could include features like a metro card and direct access to emergency services, would facilitate the elderly’s integration into modern society. Park concluded that enabling the elderly to adapt efficiently to the current social setting could break down the generational barrier between youth and the elderly, fostering a direct connection between these two disparate groups.

During my research, I coincidentally came across a website called Meet Social Value (MSV). MSV is a publishing company that specializes in writing and publishing insightful articles about contemporary social issues. Their most recent article, titled ‘Senior,’ delves into the social challenges faced by the elderly in Korean society and explores solutions involving inclusive designs and spaces.

MSV serves as a prime example of how contemporary social organizations are taking steps to address the issue of elderly discrimination. This is especially significant because, through youthful and trendy engagement on social media, it becomes easier to raise awareness of this issue among younger generations.

Meet Social Value’s most recent article, titled ‘Senior,’ delves into the social challenges faced by the elderly in Korean society and explores solutions involving inclusive designs and spaces.
Meet Social Value’s most recent article, titled ‘Senior,’ delves into the social challenges faced by the elderly in Korean society and explores solutions involving inclusive designs and spaces.

As I continued my research, I started pondering what I, as an 18-year-old, could do to contribute to resolving this issue. Even though I’m still a student, I wanted to find ways to make a difference, especially after witnessing age discrimination and its consequences firsthand.

I found the answer to my question when I learned about the initiatives undertaken by the government of Murakami City and the Murakami City Social Welfare Council to bridge the gap between the youth and senior citizens. They introduced the Murakami City Happy Volunteer Point System, which aimed to encourage more people to assist seniors through various volunteering activities such as nursing facility support, hospital transportation services, and operating dementia cafes, among others. The system rewarded volunteers with points that could be exchanged for prepaid cards, creating an incentive for more individuals to get involved in helping their senior citizens.

Taking this into consideration, I believe that the younger generation, especially students, may contribute by creating such an incentivization system. For example, students may create senior volunteering clubs within their schools and take turns volunteering and connecting with elderly citizens every weekend. By doing so, clubs may incentivize their members through points which may later be traded for a snack or lunch at the school cafeteria. Through small incentives, this may naturally encourage more students to participate and thus naturally allow for the youth to create a relationship with the elderly, hence contributing to mitigating the issue of elderly isolation.

The webpage of the Murakami City Happy Volunteer Point System containing the system’s details.
The webpage of the Murakami City Happy Volunteer Point System contains the system’s details.

In Korea’s battle against ageism, we find ourselves at a turning point. To navigate this societal shift successfully, we must recognize that age discrimination not only undermines the dignity of our elders but also hampers our collective progress. The solution requires a comprehensive approach. Policy reforms are crucial, emphasizing stringent anti-ageism measures in the public space and the workplace. Equally significant solutions are awareness campaigns to challenge stereotypes and foster inter-generational understanding.

However, true change starts with the youth. By confronting our biases and engaging in volunteering activities, we can break down barriers and celebrate the diverse experiences each age group brings. Through such efforts, we can create a society where age is not a determinant of worth but a source of strength and wisdom. It’s a journey demanding our collective commitment, but one that will lead us towards a more inclusive and harmonious future for all.

Edited by Hanna Yoon

IPS UN Bureau Report