[OUTLOOK]With More Years, There Is More to GiveThe presence of the active, bright former U.S. President Jimmy Carter during his August visit to Korea to participate in the Habitat for Humanity project was truly energizing. Habitat for Humanity is an international nonprofit organization that builds houses for families in need. Mr. Carter is living proof of the assertions made in his book, "The Virtues of Aging."
Mr. Carter was born in 1924 and is now 76 years old. In these, his twilight years, he seems to outshine those Korean politicians in the same age bracket, who continue to wrangle over political power. When asked in an interview with Barbara Walters when was the happiest period of his life, he replied, "I think it is right now." He was already in his 70s at the time of the interview.
His activities as special envoy of the U.S. president after he stepped down from his post are more highly valued than his achievements as president. There is a joke that Mr. Carter should have been the former president of the United States from the beginning. There could have been a joke that Mr. Carter should have been in his twilight years right from the start.
"Human desires deprive our inner spirits of peace and joy because of the anger, jealousy, strife, pain, despair and lack of self-confidence they all too often create," Mr. Carter said. "People should throw away these desires when they reach the elderly stage of life."
Mr. Carter also said that a symbol of maturity is to "accept open-heartedly and gallantly that unfulfilled dreams, sickness, disability and even death are all part of the human experience."
At the same time, he said that the most important thing for people who have reached their latter years is not their longevity but that they taste the joy, excitement, adventure and achievement of every moment. Hearing his words, it is unsurprising to note Mr. Carter's active involvement as a mediator in various troubled regions of the world and devotion to volunteerism, such as his Habitat for Humanity work.
Former President Carter's thoughts on aging may prompt many to reflect on how to live out the rest of their lives. In his book, Mr. Carter says, "We worry too much about what to live on, but not enough about what to live for."
According to a report by the National Statistical Office, Korea has become an "aging society," in which people older than 65 years old constitute more than 10 percent of the total population. That proportion is forecast to jump to 29.8 percent in 2030. In other words, every 10 people aged over 15 and below 65 will among them have to support three people aged over 65.
This startling statistic illustrates that solving the problems that accompany aging societies is a national challenge that cannot be ignored.
The government's welfare policy is its key to solving these problems. However, obtaining welfare finance proportionate to the increasing share of the elderly population will be impossible, since the elderly population is increasing so rapidly. Even if enough money to fund welfare for the elderly was available, it would be wasteful to spend it all on providing welfare.
Among people over 65, there are many people who are healthy, have professional knowledge and are wealthy, with a lot of spare time. If they are motivated and encouraged by the state, many will gladly participate in volunteer activities for no payment, just like Mr. Carter.
This would reduce government expenditure in two ways. Many costly government operations would be supplemented by the volunteer activities of the elderly, and the government's welfare budget will be reduced.
Nowadays many skilled people who were laid off or forced to resign due to corporate restructuring are left wandering the streets. Many of them spend their time in baduk clubs. Others take exercise in the mountains. The wealthier among them go traveling. All the same, they are just killing time. There are many sectors of our society that would welcome a helping hand － the schools, the poor and organizations for environmental protection and social education.
The more advanced a society is, the more organized it is in making volunteers of its unused human resources. Mr. Carter said he was able to participate in the overseas volunteer sector because other volunteers had managed his farm while he was overseas.
Just like Mr. Carter, if elderly people have dreams and are motivated enough, they can contribute greatly to society. The problem is whether the state can foster such a caring attitude and whether it can provide a framework to enable such self-fulfillment.
Mr. Carter also said, "We start becoming old when regrets fill the place that used to be filled with dreams."
The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yu Seung-sam