[Viewpoint]More than memories

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[Viewpoint]More than memories

I go to Jongmyo Park in downtown Seoul from time to time to take a walk and listen to senior citizens tell tales. Jongmyo Park is a giant gathering place for the elderly. Thousands show up there every morning. They come to play Korean checkers and chess games, to read newspapers and magazines and to be companions to one another all day long. Of course, some drink, quarrel and gamble, too.

I had an interesting conversation with Kim Man-geun a few days ago. The 70-year-old Kim said, “I can still flex my muscles. Look at my arms. I can even work in construction, but I cannot find a job. That’s why I come here. I come at 10 a.m. and go home at 5 p.m. This is where I pass time.” Kim, who resides in Chang-dong, Seoul, spends 3,000 won ($3) per day. With a senior ticket, he rides the subway for free from Chang-dong Station to Jongno 3-ga Station on the No. 1 line.

For lunch, he can go to a diner near the park for simple soup and rice for 2,000 won. He is a smoker and buys a pack of cigarettes every other day. So, 3,000 won a day is enough for him, he said.

Another elderly man in a handsome suit joined our conversation. He said he envied President Lee Myung-bak. “I am the same age as the president, 67 years old and born in 1941. I want to find a job, but no one would hire me because I am too old. But the citizens offered Lee a job for five years. The president has great job security, so it must be very nice,” he said with a laugh.

Jongmyo Park is a mirror of Korea’s aging society. Korea became an aging society in 2005; citizens 65 years or older make up more than 7 percent of the total population. By 2018, the country is expected to be an aged society, with senior citizens making up 14 percent of the population, and a super-aged society by 2026 with 20 percent of the population over 65. When our society is already overflowing with “healthy old folks,” further aging is of great concern.

Jongmyo Park also reflects today’s social reality. The senior citizens discuss all kinds of issues including the candlelight vigils opposing U.S. beef imports, rallies commemorating the deaths of two middle school girls killed by a U.S. military vehicle, the South-North Korea June 15 joint declaration and even the issue of sex among the elderly. Among these issues, we need to keep in mind the wishes of senior citizens.

They want to work. They are still healthy and energetic, but with nothing to do, they are having a hard time. The government announced that it would create 117,000 jobs for senior citizens this year.

Some might say jobless youngsters are of more concern, but senior unemployment is a very serious issue. When they work, they become younger at heart. A healthier senior population means fewer social burdens on society and the younger generation.

The working elderly are having a good time. A 74-year-old Roh Dong-ok feels energetic on Thursdays and Fridays, when she can display her kimchi-making skills, refined over 50 years since marrying at age 22. She works at a kimchi factory in Ulju County, Ulsan Metropolitan City. The factory opened in March and employs 13 grandmothers. They are all proud of their cooking skills. The youngest is 64 years old, and Roh is the oldest. The monthly revenue from the handmade kimchi is 8 million won. Each employee is paid 200,000 to 500,000 won a month.

Roh says, “It’s not about money. I just like to work. I am healthier and do not have to ask for an allowance from my children.” The government and the city of Ulsan invested 5 million won each in the kimchi factory, and the joint project has given great happiness to the older ladies.

The JoongAng Ilbo ran a series of four reports called “Homecoming of Retired Reporters” from June 3 to June 6. Six former reporters in their 60s and 70s interviewed other sexagenarians and septuagenarians who successfully found jobs. Both the reporters and the interviewees said that they had fun with the project as they could display the skills accumulated during their careers.

They don’t want to steal job opportunities from youngsters nor do they want to make big money. They just want to do something with their energy.

Having made today’s Korea, they want to contribute once again. When the elderly are happy, the society becomes healthier. Making this a reality is our duty, our task and our future.

*The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Yang Young-yu
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