December 15, 2022 12:43
Almost 3,400 people died alone in Korea last year, often left undiscovered for some time as lockdown isolated them even further from society.
The number of lonely deaths has jumped 40 percent over the last five years as more and more people live alone, and almost half of them were men who were only in their 50s and 60s.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare on Wednesday said it used police records to conduct its first study of people dying alone.
The ministry defines a lonely death as a person dying without contact with family or relatives, be it from suicide or disease, and their body left undiscovered for some time.
The number of lonely deaths stood at 2,412 in 2017 but had risen to 3,378 last year or around one percent of total deaths in the country. Men outnumbered women around four times, and they were more likely to die alone in their 50s and 60s than in their 70s.
Up to 60 percent involved men in their 50s and 60s. According to the Center for Happiness Studies at Seoul National University, they are often incapable of looking after themselves after layoff or divorce, resulting in a sharp decrease in the quality of life as they descend into alcoholism and despair.
Song In-joo at the Seoul Welfare Foundation said, "Men in their 50s and 60s are at risk of a lonely death if they lose their jobs and grow apart from their family, becoming quickly isolated from society as their health deteriorates."
The regions with the most lonely deaths are Busan, Incheon, Gwangju and South Chungcheong Province, while the biggest increases were in Daejeon, Gyeonggi Province and South Jeolla Province.
Gyeonggi Province alone saw 3,185 lonely deaths over the last five years, while 2,748 people died alone in Seoul, 1,408 in Busan, 1,081 in South Gyeongsang Province and 1,064 in Incheon.
Experts blame the rise of single households for growing isolation. One-person households accounted for 33.4 percent of total households last year, up 7.9 percent from 2020. In 25 years' time, an estimated 40 percent of households in Korea will be singles.
Ko Suk-ja at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs said, "People who end up living alone after divorce or the death of a spouse and find themselves in financial hardship are more likely to die alone, and one-person households have a high proportion of unemployed or temporary workers."
But there was also an increase in people under 30 dying alone. Their number rose from 204 to 219 over the last five years. Suicide was more than twice as high among young people as other age groups.
The main reason was stress caused by studies, job searches and isolation. According to a report by the Gyeonggi Welfare Foundation, most young people who die alone live in tiny studio flats measuring just 16 to 33 sq.m, and their bodies are often found next to job-search guidebooks, electronic equipment and instant food.
Experts are calling on local governments and support groups to reach out and help vulnerable people, for example by issuing store coupons and checking up on those who fail to use them.
Seok Jae-eun at Hallym University said, "People vulnerable to lonely deaths could be spotted more easily if they were given easy access to welfare services such as free meals."
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