Park Kyung Rye enrolled in a “well-dying” class in Seoul when the death of her husband of six decades left the 80-year-old South Korean battling thoughts of suicide.
Lonely and ailing she sought relief in the six-week course that seeks 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 in a country where the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates 37 percent of the population will be older than 65 by 2050.
“I’m now more at peace with myself and my husband’s passing,” 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 from the ruins of the Korean War 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, who are a key to her Saenuri party maintaining power after her term ends in 2018.
Almost 5,000 South Koreans over the age of 60 took their lives in 2012, from 4,300 five years earlier, spurring efforts to convince people like Park Kyung Rye that there is an alternative. The jump is one reason why South Korea has the highest suicide rate among OECD nations.
The economic costs of depression and suicide surged 42 percent between 2007 and 2011 to 10.4 trillion won ($10.2 billion), the National Health Insurance Service said in a January report. About two thirds of that comes from lost potential income and nearly a third from a resulting drop in productivity, the report said.
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 percent in 2012.
“We’re headed for one unhappy society that’s both aged and suicidal,” said Lee Jung Min, professor of labor economics at Seoul’s Sogang University. “A high suicide rate is a sign of economic disparities, and if it continues it will weigh on productivity and consumer sentiment by affecting families, friends and all the people related to the victims.”
Korea was slow to reward its elderly for building one of the world’s most dynamic economies after the war. South Korea’s pension system began in 1988 and didn’t cover all workers until 1999. It wasn’t made retroactive to those working before its inception, and people covered at the tail end of their careers qualified for limited payouts. A basic minimum payout for the elderly was added in 2008.
The OECD estimates that only one fifth of seniors receive a regular pension, while 70 percent get the minimum old-age benefit. That payout is set at about 5 percent of the average wage, a fraction of the minimum living cost of 20 percent, the OECD says.
“The state pension system began too late and those who were able to sign up stayed with the program too short to receive enough money,” Moon Hyung Pyo, Minister of Health and Welfare, said in written comments. “Another reason the poverty rate is high is that our seniors were too occupied with caring for their parents and educating their children to prepare for their own retirement.”
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 center in northeast Seoul that the retired Park attended was one of the first to open. Dozens of the courses have sprung up around the country, offered by the staff of public and private welfare organizations and generally held at their facilities.
The Nowon senior welfare center has held 20 classes since starting its program. It covers the 2 million won cost for the course, and has conducted the classes for 400 seniors, including Park, for free.
Park, a retired house cleaner with no pension, relies on support from her three children to get by. She lives in a 20-year-old government-built apartment in northern Seoul that her husband purchased with a lump-sum pension payout from his job as a civil servant.
“The loneliness of being left alone pushed me to the edge,” said Park. “The chronic pain in my legs and back made it worse. I was unprepared to live alone and started having bad thoughts, very bad thoughts.”
At the school 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. Park keeps hers on top of her television set.
“South Koreans tend to think of death as a quick way to end their difficulties,” said Park Hoon, a researcher at the Institute of Life and Death Studies at Hallym University in Chuncheon near Seoul. “But 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.”
The welfare of seniors emerged as a hot topic in the December 2012 election. Park, who won three quarters of the votes of South Koreans over the age of 60, campaigned on a platform of expanded social spending, including pension payments.
After months of wrangling over funding, parliament last month passed a scaled-down version of Park’s proposal for a senior payout to replace the 2008 minimum payment. The new payout to those over 65 provides a monthly allowance of 200,000 won, or less than $200.
“It’s too early for us to give up on our potential,” Lee Gae Suk, an 81-year-old former teacher and well-dying school graduate said, showing off a 30-page chronicle of her life with a graph showing its ups and downs. “Hard times come for old people like us, but suicide is the worst answer to it. That’s what I understood by learning death.”