Sunday 15 June 2014

S. Korean seniors learn to 'die well'

Elderly suicides a test of President's pledge to improve support for the aged
The Straits Times, 14 Jun 2014

SEOUL - Madam Park Kyung Rye, 80, enrolled in a "well-dying" class in Seoul when the death of her husband of six decades left her battling thoughts of suicide.

Lonely and ailing, she sought relief in the six-week course that aims to show seniors how to appreciate life by preparing for death.

The well-dying class - the name is a play on well-being - reflects efforts to combat the developed world's highest elderly suicide rate. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates 37 per cent of its population will be older than 65 by 2050.

"I'm now more at peace with myself and my husband's passing," Madam Park said in an interview.

"I rediscovered life in the light of death and promised myself I wouldn't think of suicide but live as happily as possible until a natural death claims me."

Many of the generation that built Asia's fourth-biggest economy now find themselves mired in poverty, left behind by the economic boom they helped construct.

For President Park Geun Hye, elderly suicide is both a threat to public health and a test of her pledge to improve support for seniors.

Almost 5,000 South Koreans over the age of 60 took their lives in 2012, up from 4,300 five years earlier, spurring efforts to convince people like Madam Park that there is an alternative.

The rise is one reason why South Korea has the highest suicide rate among OECD nations.

The economic costs of depression and suicide surged 42 per cent between 2007 and 2011 to 10.4 trillion won (S$12.8 billion), the National Health Insurance Service said in a January report.

Young Koreans who commit suicide are often driven by the pressure of the country's hyper-competitive education system and job market.

For the elderly, the cause tends to be penury. The poverty rate among South Korea's elderly was the highest in the OECD at 49.3 per cent in 2012.

South Korea's pension system began in 1988 and did not cover all workers until 1999.

The welfare of seniors emerged as a hot topic in the December 2012 elections.

After months of wrangling over funding, Parliament last month passed a scaled-down version of President Park's proposal for a senior payout to replace a 2008 minimum payment.

The new payout to those over 65 provides a monthly allowance of 200,000 won.

With the elderly poverty rate rising, the government is stepping up spending on suicide prevention with efforts such as the well-dying schools, which have spread since 2006 when the welfare centre in north-east Seoul that Madam Park attended was one of the first to open.

Dozens of these courses have sprung up around the country, offered by the staff of public and private welfare organisations and generally held at their facilities.

The Nowon senior welfare centre has held 20 classes since starting its programme.

It covers the 2 million won cost for the course, and has conducted the classes for 400 seniors, including Madam Park, for free.

Madam Park, a retired house cleaner with no pension, relies on support from her three children to get by.

She lives in a government-built apartment in northern Seoul that her husband purchased.

At the school, Madam Park joined nearly 20 other seniors in embracing their mortality.

They visited a crematorium and a possible resting place for their ashes in a nearby forest.

They had portrait photos taken, which are traditionally displayed at Korean funerals.

They wrote autobiographies, made video messages for their families, and crafted plaster replicas of their hands as symbols of appreciation for themselves.

"Death should be seen as a reminder of how precious life is and why life is so worth living. That's what well-dying schools try to teach, by confronting their students with the positive nature of death." said Mr Park Hoon, a researcher at the Institute of Life and Death Studies at Hallym University in Chuncheon near Seoul.


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