Scourge of dying aloneMore and more people are dying and no one seems to notice. They live alone and die alone, only to be discovered months or sometimes years later. The bones of a man in Busan were found six months after he died in total solitude. A 30-year-old woman was also discovered in Busan two weeks ago after having passed away eight months ago. A 60-year-old woman, who had been a professional volleyball player, was found dead in Seoul last month some 20 days after her sad death in solitude.
Solitary deaths are no longer rare in the country. In fact, they have been around for a long time. But the government does not keep official data on people who die in solitude. It merely estimates that 500 to as many as 1,000 die alone every year without any care or aid.
Since solitary deaths pose a growing social problem, the Ministry of Health and Welfare has been making phone calls to the elderly who live alone on a daily basis. About 170,000 are on the watch list. Given that the number of single elderly is estimated to total about 1.19 million, it means just one out of 10 senior citizens living alone receives government care, including phone calls from social workers. The elderly poor may be better off than the rest of their age group living alone because at least they’re checked upon every day.
Preventing solitary deaths is no easy task. Japan, which has had a similar problem for a few years, estimates that about 26,000 people died alone and without decent care and assistance in 2011. But Japanese officials have not been able to tally the exact number of people in need of help and come up with effective responses. Solitary deaths are no longer limited to the poor and elderly and are spreading to the higher-income bracket and younger people.
People living alone or in couples make up half of all households in Korea. It is time we tighten the social security net and community networks to prevent people from leading such lonely lives that they may die unnoticed. Care for the single elderly should be heightened. At the same time, studies should be taken to discover the warning signs and risks of solitary deaths. Those who died alone mostly led lives of extreme solitude, confined to their homes and financially hard-up.
The civil society should be able to share data and anecdotal evidence on solitary deaths so we all can be on the lookout for the signs and deliver care and assistance in time. The job cannot be shouldered by the government alone. We should all be responsible for our neighbors’ well-being.