Toward zero solitary deathsThe lonely deaths of two elderly twin sisters stirred Japan 14 years ago. The tragic case happened in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo. The two 77-year-olds who lived together were found dead, side by side. The sisters did not have children. Since the older sister had limited mobility, the younger sister cared for her. One day, the younger sister had a stroke and died. As the older sister had no one to provide her with meals, she died of hunger next to her sister. The bodies of the women were discovered months later. A community committee member went to check on them, only to find them in that tragic condition.
At the time, local governments in Japan were operating a service to check in on senior citizens who lived alone to make sure they were okay, and made regular visits and provided health checkups.
However, the sisters did not apply for the service, so no one checked in on them. The media criticized the loopholes in the welfare system that put people like the twins at risk. After a series of shocking but all-too-similar deaths, the Japanese government announced the “Zero Solitary Death Project” in 2007. Seniors living alone were given active attention, with an alert system for acute diseases and checks for electricity and gas usage.
Have the Japanese government’s efforts been successful? The program doesn’t seem to be very effective, considering NHK aired a special, “32,000 Deaths Without Family or Friends” in 2010. “Solitary death,” as this phenomenon is called in Japan, emerged as a major social problem in the 1990s, as the country became an “aged society,” with 14 percent of its population being seniors. While the government made plans and measures since then, it was criticized for failing to make more aggressive plans earlier.
In Korea, a solitary death was recently discovered, five years after the woman died. The tragic news came from Busan. After receiving an emergency call, investigators from a local precinct entered a tiny room in Choeup-dong, near Busan Children’s Park. In the cobweb-covered room, they found the body of the 67-year-old woman identified only as “Kim,” lying like a mummy.
“It must have been cold when she passed away, as she was wearing nine or 10 layers of clothing,” said an investigator. “Considering the condition of the body, it is estimated that she passed away five years ago.”
How could the neighbors not realize her absence for five years? She did not have any family. She lived alone in a tiny room that had a deposit of 7 million won ($6,535) and 100,000 won per month in rent. She used to stay at a nearby temple often. When she was no longer seen in the area, neighbors assumed that she had gone to the temple. The landlord did not look for her, taking the rent out of her deposit. A neighbor said, “I didn’t even know someone lived there.” She was a ghost.
How could the welfare network miss her solitary death for five years? A worker at the Choeup-dong Resident Center’s welfare division said that she did not apply for the basic living subsidies and was not in their system.
There are 25,000 residents in Choeup-dong, with just two welfare workers. They have to manage 600 basic living subsidy recipients, 200 low-income subsidy recipients and 2,200 basic senior pension recipients. They already have too much paperwork to deal with. It is hard for low-ranking public servants in the welfare system to catch blind spots.
Korea’s elderly population has reached 6 million, about 12.2 percent of the total population. Five years from now, in 2018, Korea will become an aged society.
Our society will resemble the population structure of Japan in the 1990s. Japan had a local community welfare network at the time, but still struggled with shocking solitary deaths.
The case of a solitary death that took five years to discover illustrates that Korea is not any more prepared to become an aged society than Japan was 20 years ago. How should we deal with solitary deaths five years from now? I hear an ominous alarm signaling an aged society. The silver storm will arrive very soon.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Lee Kyu-youn