Korean Elderly

Old people. I love them. My parents were old. I don’t mean that in an unkind way, but my parents were relatively old when I was born. My mother was 39 and my father, 44 when I was born. While these days this is not so unusual, back in the 1960s it was. So growing up, I was always very aware of the elderly. My paternal grandparents, immigrants from Poland, lived into their 90s. My mother was a hairdresser and always volunteered at nursing homes and convents to give haircuts, and I was carted along – spending long hours chatting with the elderly. I think my fascination with people comes from those times. The stories I heard made me wonder about life and how much things change as well as stay the same. They made me wonder about life overseas, not just in Indiana or Chicago or America. Old people inspire me with the quiet etchings of wrinkles on their faces, showing the map of their life. Now middle- aged myself, I feel even more affinity as my life story gets more and more complicated to tell, I take refuge in that my wrinkles too reflect the life I have lived.

In Korea old people especially fascinate me. At GIC we have a contingent of retirees that attend the regular GIC Talk. Asking somewhat inappropriate questions, they put themselves out there, in English – not their native language to stay active and involved. I love that they are a quality part of my community, offering an insight into the breadth of cultural change that Korea has experienced. We also have Dr Shin Sang Soon, in his 80s, who still comes once or twice a week to volunteer as well as writes The Korean Way column for Gwangju News. I did an article for Gwangju News a few years ago about Seolnal, and learned so much about the personal memories of empty bellies being a reality that the holiday food they overate made them sick. It was like hearing stories from my father about the Great Depression in America.

Stories of Korean elderly are available at district centers here in Gwangju. The elderly have shared their life stories and these are documented for posterity. I think that there should be grade school readers made of them to supplement the history books here in Korea. Wouldn’t it be nice to get Korea, Japan and China to write a history book that honors all three countries’ past without nationalistic or ideological propaganda in them? Then the reader of life stories could act as a supplement to showcase the personal expression of history as it was lived.

The aging generation, or silver generation, has led Gwangju to more adequately deal with the unique problems that post industrialization has brought upon the traditional Korean family. Traditionally, elderly would live with the first son’s family. This is no longer the standard. Grandparents frequently live on their own, staying independent as long as they can. This may not be what the older generations want, I hear many elderly longingly and lovingly talk about how wonderful it will be to live with their children and grandchildren and be cherished by them. But modern life has changed this standard, and more silver towns are being built to accommodate the special needs of the elderly, as families feel they cannot cope with the care of the elderly in their own homes. While many silver towns are privately owned and run, some are nonprofits. Below is a list of several nonprofit centers that help the elderly.

Senior Citizen Centers

무등장애인자립생활센터 Mudeung Indepentent Living Center http://cafe.daum.net/mudeungcil/ 062-433-9209
빛고을장애인자립 생활센터 Bitgoeul Center for Independent Living http://www.bgil.or.kr/ 062-682-5254
열린케어 장애인자립생활 센터 Open Care Independent Living Center http://cafe.daum.net/opendoorcil/ 062-672-0195  
오방장애인자립생활센터 O-Bang Independent Living Center http://cafe.daum.net/obangcenter/ 062-433-7782
우리이웃장애인자립생활센터 Independent Living Cener http://www.necil.kr/ 062-269-3157

There are also many projects that are developed to help engage Korean elderly. There are work programs, usually street clean up crews, as well as language, music, and social programs at places like the Senior Bitgeoul Center in Namgu. This enormous recreational center also has health check facilities and a cafeteria that serves a chun won lunch for one thousand people.

But the reality for many Korean elderly is poverty. Forty five percent of people over 65 in Korea live in poverty. Nearly half of the elderly that you meet are living on less than half the average household income.  I think of this every time I see the squid granny in the Chungjangno underground mall.

The elderly in Korea don’t want pity and in some ways, I don’t think they want to be taken care of. Feeling useful is important to them. I think that their formative experiences of living through the Korean War and surviving Spartan development decades of the 1960s and 1970s, has left them aching for the collective confidence and pride that they gained from seeing the rise of  the Korean Tiger economic miracle in the 1990s and in this century.

The elderly in Korea may be some of most economically poor people in Korea, but they are infinitely some of the most experienced and story-rich people I have had the pleasure to brush elbows with.

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