Serving seniors: A big new business
None of this is unusual; even the couple’s age ― he is 75, she is 74 ― is just about average for the residents here.
“Here” happens to be a “silver town,” a private retirement home in Korea. With the country having an increasingly old society ― the average age of Koreans is rapidly rising ― the industry for constructing and maintaining retirement homes or complexes is booming. The facilities are essentially condominiums, in which each unit can be leased or purchased.
“Silver town” residents say living in retirement centers beats all the other options, such as staying with their children or living in a normal apartment complex.
“After retirement, I stayed home and I had no plans. Since I came in here, I started taking care of my health,” said Kim Jong-su, 78, a resident of Classion, a “silver town” in northern Seoul.
“One day my hands started shaking and was unable to do housework. I asked my husband to free me from my domestic duties,” said Shin Jeong-hyeon, a 63-year-old widow living at Seoul Seniors Tower in western Seoul. “I learned how to play table tennis for the first time here after the age of sixty. There are some in their 60s and 70s who are really good at it,” Ms. Shin said. “There are so many programs. They take us to places where even my children can’t go.”
Most of the silver towns are designed to meet every need a senior resident could have; they have a restaurant that serves three meals a day, a swimming pool, fitness center, clinic, beauty salon, sauna, karaoke, computer room, library, audio-visual room and billiards room. They offer services such as organized group activities and field trips, as well as doing the cleaning and the laundry.
Since most of the residents are senior citizens, the emphasis is on health. The centers are often associated with or have contracts with hospitals so that the residents can easily seek medical help. They provide personalized fitness and health programs as well as biannual health check-ups. Nurses are stationed around the clock for emergency situations. All the housing units have sensors that set off an alarm if a person does not move for a certain amount of time, there is nothing to block wheelchairs and the floor of the bathrooms are made of non-slippery materials. Silver towns are also often made up of a single building, so it takes little walking to go anywhere.
“We take care of their basic needs. When people get older, everyday life becomes difficult. They are prone to senility and medical accidents,” said Kim Min-joo, an employee at Seoul Seniors Tower. “We do everything for them, things their children should do otherwise. We relieve their worries.”
The silver towns are different from nursing homes, which are for those who are paralyzed or unable to move. If residents in these silver towns are paralyzed or bed-ridden, they are transferred to nursing homes.
The increasing number of silver towns also indicates changes in people’s ideas about providing care for elderly parents. In a drastic change from a Confucian society in which children traditionally live with their parents and support them until they die, both children and parents want to live separately.
“After I got old and widowed, I had no place to rely on. I feel comfortable here. I don’t want to live off my children,” said Mr. Kim, who lives in the Classion center. Mr. Kim said he has five children, three of whom live in the United States; they sometimes visit him, he said. “In the United States, most elderly people do not live with their children. It’s a cultural difference.
“They are busy with themselves. I feel more comfortable here,” Mr. Kim said.
“In the beginning, when I told my children that I was going to a home for the elderly, they cried. They felt sorry for me. My eldest son objected to my decision. I told them I don’t want to be a burden,” Ms. Shin said.
In the beginning, when these silver towns were first built, things were very different. Yudang Village, the first silver town located in Suwon, opened in 1988, after amendments in elderly welfare laws allowed the creation of for-profit facilities for the elderly. At that time, sending one’s own parents to an “old folks’ home” was considered shameful.
Those in the industry say the stigma still exists, though it is much stronger in rural areas, which is why most of the silver towns are built in large cities. Despite the steep cost, those who live in these silver towns in Seoul usually do so because they do not want to be separated from their friends and families, most of whom live around the metropolitan area.
“The ones in metropolitan areas are closer to hospitals. If the residents lived in rural areas, they would feel more isolated. It would be difficult for their families to visit them, too,” said Kim Eun-mi, a social worker at Seoul Seniors Tower.
There are many reasons seniors want to live in “silver towns,” such as loneliness and the fear of living alone, but the need to simply eat and the death of a spouse are two of the main reasons.
Widowers find it difficult to cook their own food or dine out everyday, and women who are still married say they do not want to cook for their husbands for the rest of their lives.
“Often the biggest motivation to come here is that they don’t need to worry about eating, especially those who are widowed,” said John Harry Cho, the director of Classion.
There are often more widows than couples, and there are more women than men; as time goes on, the discrepancies between the two groups increases. Seoul Seniors Tower runs three homes for the aged; the first opened in 1998 in central Seoul, the second in Seoul’s western Gangseo district in 2003 and the third in the Bundang district of Seongnam, Gyeonggi province, a few months later. Widows and widowers account for 48 percent of the residents in the Bundang facility, 57 percent in the Gangseo facility and 76 percent in the Jung facility. Women make up 59 percent of the Bundang facility’s residents, 56 percent in Gangseo and 63 percent in the one in central Seoul.
Most of the widowed residents entered the facility after they lost their spouse. But those who lose their spouse after moving into the center can lean on the other residents for emotional support.
“When there are people who feel left out, we try to take care of each other,” Ms. Shin said. Most seniors in these retirement centers enjoy everyday life and say they are happy. After all, most residents who decide to live there think of it as “their last home,” Mr. Cho said. Then he stopped, and added, “but it can never replace their family.”
What’s behind the boom in retirement-home living?
Changes in regulations and demographics related to senior citizens have been fueled the boom in “silver towns.” In 2005, the number of Koreans age 65 or older accounted for 9.3 percent of the total population; by 2018, that figure is expected to rise to 14 percent.
As the law permits the construction of silver towns or apartments for the elderly even in non-residential zones, an increasing number of construction companies are moving into the industry. Adding to the drive is the fact that in 2008, the government will start to pick up 80 percent of the expenses related to care of the elderly. Regional governments are also building or planning silver towns. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the number of silver towns increased to 49 in 2004, from only 35 the year before.
However, the boom appears to be more of a bubble. Recently, there were reports that sliver towns in provincial areas have been unable to find enough numbers of tenants and that several went bankrupt. When that happened, however, the managers were unable to refund the deposits the elderly residents had paid to move into the facility.
“You can’t make money with silver towns. Some of the ones who went bankrupt did so even before they opened,” said Kim Eun-mi, a social worker at Seoul Seniors Tower. “The silver town management companies must be capable, but most of all, they need a sense of accountability.”
According to welfare laws for the elderly, only those who are 60 years old or older can live in silver towns. Only those who are on welfare and who can prove they do not have enough wealth or income can enter government-subsidized free facilities for the elderly, so seniors with money and who want to live in a housing center for the elderly must pay to do so. Government-subsidized homes for the elderly either charge nothing or a small amount, as low as 350,000 won ($368) a month, while privately run silver towns can charge as much as they want. The living expenses run anywhere from 400,000 won to 3 million won for a couple and including a one-time refundable deposit ranging from 13 million to 1 billion won. Living in the Seoul area is most expensive; the monthly cost of living starts at 800,000 won and the minimum key deposit is 100 million won. An apartment unit in a silver town in the Seoul metropolitan area can be quite pricey: A unit covering 76 square meters (818 square feet) will cost about 200 million won.
Many residents of these silver towns are former teachers, professors, public servants and diplomats and rely on monthly pension checks to pay their bills; not surprisingly, few residents earn a monthly paycheck or have a salaried position.
by Limb Jae-un