There's Life in Those Hands Yet

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There's Life in Those Hands Yet

Several elderly women sit or lie on the heated floor watching a television drama, hardly speaking a word to each other. In the room next door, partitioned off from the main hall by a translucent glass door with a sign that reads "Grandfathers' Room," an old man is taking a nap, curled up on a worn-out couch.

"This is what we do when we come here," said Ahn Bok-suk, 82, her hair as white as the delicately beaded angora cardigan she is wearing. The place is a clubhouse for the elderly called a kyeongnodang located in the Byuksan Apartment estate in Hongeun 1-dong, Seoul. Like such clubs elsewhere - there is one in just about every apartment estate and neighborhood - this is no country club. There are two couches in the large hall where a large-screen television sits in a corner, two refrigerators at the end of the hall and a long table holding glasses and plates.

"We just sit around and watch TV, play cards or baduk, or talk about this and that, and go home around 6 o'clock for dinner," said Ms. Ahn. However, it beats staying at home, where she lives with her youngest daughter's family. She comes to the club nearly every day as do most of the 20 or so members who pay 2,000 won ($1.50) in monthly dues to cover snacks.

"I don't mean to whine and complain but I wish I could do something productive. Being so utterly useless is very stressful," said Ms. Ahn, who still has a booming voice and sits tall despite her advanced age. At home, she said, she feels ignored by her children and grandchildren. She complained that her youngest granddaughter, 29, does not include her in conversations, dismissing her as being too old to understand anything. "We are alienated from the rest of society," she said.

Last July Korea officially became an aging society, defined by the United Nations as one where at least 7 percent of the population is over the age of 65. Since then, the proportion of the elderly has continued to grow, reaching 7.4 percent of the total population, or some 3.54 million, as of the end of last month.

If this trend continues, at least 20 percent of the population will be over the age of 65 by 2032, and the elderly will be no longer the alienated minority but a substantial chunk of society.

This prospect has several significant implications, one of which is finding employment for the elderly as people live well beyond their 70s and 80s. In fact, more than 60 percent of Koreans over the age of 65 wish to find employment, according to a study released earlier this year.

Conducted jointly by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs and the Korean Institute for Gerontology last year, the study also found that 53 percent of senior citizens aged over 65 living in large cities did not live with their married children. This figure is even higher in rural areas at 63 percent.

Some 32 percent of these senior citizens' households had an average monthly income of less than 400,000 won ($310), while 26 percent had an average monthly income between 400,000 and 800,000 won.

Despite the large number of elderly who wish to find gainful employment, it is not an easy task for those over 65. "We are able to find placements for those under the age of 60, but for those over 65, it is difficult," said Kim Hee-sook, director of Seobu Job Placement Center for the Elderly. About 30-40 people a day visit the center and about half register for jobs.

For security guard positions at apartment and office buildings, some of the most widely available jobs, elderly workers get paid about 600,000 won a month. For women, there are some cleaning jobs and nanny positions available. "Of the few employment opportunities available to these people, most are routine, manual jobs. There are no office or clerical positions that are open to the elderly," Ms. Kim said.

In the absence of government-led efforts to find employment for the elderly, the aging population will continue to face difficulties finding jobs because the business sector shuns senior citizens.

"There are no incentives for businesses to hired the aged," said Kwon Suk-je, who oversees a program recruiting elderly volunteer interpreters at Sarangche, a privately operated service center for senior citizens in Insadong, next to Pagoda Park, a favorite gathering spot for senior citizens, where up to 700 elderly people can be found at noon lining up for a free lunch.

The program, which has been operating since last May, recruits volunteers who can speak English, Japanese and Chinese and places them in interpretation kiosks in spots frequented by foreign visitors, such as Insadong and old palaces. For their services they are paid 2,000 won per hour. "That is a really paltry sum. However, the volunteer job gives them something to do and makes them feel like productive members of society," said Mr. Park.

With no real prospects of finding employment, those over the age of 65 satisfy themselves with feeling useful. The club at Byuksan Apartment recently scored a coup - of a sort. The group of seniors, most of whom are over the age of 70, won the right to maintain the small public park on a hill just behind the club.

For cleaning up the park, pruning the trees and providing general maintenance, the club will be paid 300,000 won a month. "It is not much but it gives us something to do as well as a sense of self-worth," said Lee Suk-ha, 80, president of the club.

There is a pilot program in preparation that, if successful, could become a model for finding employment for senior citizens. A government initiative named Community Senior Club aims to provide employment and volunteer opportunities for seniors with appropriate work experience, and is due to be launched in the first half of this year.

Although it remains to be seen if the seniors will get paid a fair amount for their work, retired teachers, executives and civil servants will be matched with companies that require their services. It is hoped this will open the way for increasing numbers of elderly citizens to find employment or volunteer opportunities in their specialized fields, proving that although they've been around a while and seen a few things, they're not yet over the hill.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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