Grey days of old age become golden years for the new granniesWaiting for death used to be the main occupation of Korean women in their seventies. They spent their time in tedious occupations at senior welfare centers. They were treated as if their usefulness had expired. The high point of their lives was attending the funerals of each other’s husbands. Now those times are changing. There is a new generation of young ‘grannies’ proclaiming their independence and viality. After a lifetime of looking after their spouse and children they are blooming in new lives of their own choosing.
“These are the golden days of my life,” said Chae Jeong-ja, 64, from Sadang-dong, Seoul. “At last, I feel my life is mine to control.” Mrs. Chae used to be a housewife raising three kids and devoting all her time to domestic chores, like most Korean mothers. Her life reached a turning point after her son passed the judicial examination and got married. Her new life, as a student at Namseoul University in the Child Welfare department, was a dream she had postponed for a long time while raising her children. She has a tight schedule ― on Mondays, Korean acupuncture; Tuesdays, volunteer work; Wednesdays, sports dancing and computer lessons; Fridays, Traditional Korean dance and harmonica lessons. Her timetable shows how passionate she is about being an active participant in her life, not a spectator.
When children finally leave their parents after getting a job or getting married, their departure is often a cause of depression and stress, especially for the mother. “This so-called‘empty nest syndrome’ is often more intense around the age of 60 as a mother’s loneliness is magnified by feelings of impending mortality,” said Oh Kyoung-hee, the chief researcher at the Research Institute for Asian Women. “But nowadays, the number of women who have overcome the syndrome by enthusiastically participating in various activities is increasing.”
Lee Mi-young, 60, from Gongdeok-dong Seoul, was computer illiterate one year ago. Now she tells her daughter to use Google and has become an enthusiastic amateur researcher, using search engines to find diverting activities. Mrs. Lee developed her skills by attending a computer class at a nearby welfare center. Currently, she is studying Powerpoint and Excel. After taking computer lessons, she said, she no longer suffers from insomnia or indigestion.
After having an eye operation eight years ago Kim Mal-bok, 70, of Sangdo-dong, who raised four children, was determined to live the rest of her life to the fullest. “After participating in various activities, I don’t feel useless anymore. I want to spend the rest of my life volunteering.” Currently Mrs. Kim is the vice president of Dongjak Senior Welfare Community’s volunteer Dongurami (Circle).
The elderly are also finding new love. Recently, in a cafe in Kangnam, a ‘silver date’ event was held. It was hosted by a remarriage information company. Eighty single men and women aged from their late fifties to seventies participated. “The ratio of women to men who registered was seven to three, so some women could not come,” said a member of the organising company. “We always make sure we have a 50/50 split of the sexes. Ninety percent of the participants called to register by themselves.”
Ms. Hwang, 61, one of the participants said, “I didn’t dare date anyone fearing it might bring shame on my children.” She laughed shyly adding that she found the courage to register for a date after having grandchildren.
Im Sun-na is currently a senior member at the Shinsegae Culture Center. She joined seven years ago to ease the sense of futility she experienced after her son’s family moved out. “I was aimless for quite a while. I had dedicated my life to my children and had not become involved in activities outside the family. Then, one day, I thought, ‘I’m done with my task, now I have to find my own life.’” Dance lessons and singing classes for elders changed Ms. Im’s life. She hangs out with her new friends, goes to the movies and is planning to go on trips. “I have no sense of depression anymore,” said Ms. Im.
Park Ji-Shim, 61 saw an advertisement for a computer class on her way to her granddaughter’s welfare center. “I raised my granddaughter for my daughter since she is busy with her career. I noticed I had no time for myself since I was so busy taking care of my granddaughter. But by the time she was old enough to enter elementary school, I acknowledged I had to find more to do with my life than devoting it to my family.” Nowadays, she fights over the computer with her granddaughter. “I found the best friend I have had in 30 years through an Internet community,” said Mrs. Park with a smile.
Kim, 65, (who did not want to use her full name) attended a ‘silver date’ program and is currently in touch with a man in his seventies. Kim says she has been single for thirty years. After her children got married, she noticed she had nobody by her side. “I joined the dating program to meet someone to keep me company. I do aerobics and attend health clubs, but couldn’t find a good companion.”
Choi Hye-Kyoung, a professor at Ewha Womans University’s department of consumer science and human development said, “Women, who were living a tedious life while going through the same routine for years, didn’t have the opportunity to see their own lives clearly. They didn’t have the time to be introspective and ask, ‘What kind of person am I and what do I want to do with my life.’ And after their children get married and move out, they dream about the freer life they were postponing for years. Also the fact that many women are financially stable due to years of advanced preparation for their declining years and the increasing numbers of healthy women, made it possible for these women to find a new life.”
Some husbands are perplexed by the transformation of their wives. Song Suk-ja, 69, was told by her husband a few years ago that she has changed completely. “Tell me what your friends are like, because one thing for sure, they certainly changed you 180 degrees,” said Mrs. Song’s husband. Mrs. Song began to eat out and see movies, and this made her husband feel uncomfortable. But after Mrs. Song told her husband that her life became more active and worthwhile after attending the Culture Center, her husband began to understand.
Seo Kyung-suk, the president of the Korean Association of Senior Welfare Centers said the new breed of grannies will make life more challenging. “ When men reach their sixties, their role seems to diminish, but on the other hand, women seem to discover their potential and this is why women in their sixties are more active in learning and cultural activities than men.”
Children are also showing their approval for their mothers’ transformation. Park Ji-won,37, said, “ Since my mother started to learn how to use the computer, we keep in touch by e-mails. I encourage her a lot because her company is so much more pleasant now she does not sit around at home being bored; we are getting along much better.”
“The fact that women in their sixties are getting there own lives is not only good for their physical and mental health but also has as a positive effect on their children, making them feel under less pressure to support and nurture their parents,” said Choi Hye-Kyoung. “Naturally, it produces a wholesome environment for both generations.”
by Han Ae-ran