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Caring for an Aging Flock: The Church’s Response to the Suffering Korean Elderly in an Aged Society

Updated: Jan 20, 2023

By Jieun Han*

Fig 1. Poster of the Movie Take Care of My Mom (Marim is looking at Miseon with a suspicious glance, but later grows to trust Miseon more.) Source: Paran Oi

~ Take Care of My Mom (Its original title is Marim ssi reul butakae 말임씨를 부탁해 which means “Take care of Ms. Marim.”) is a Korean movie released in April 2022. The movie tugs at the heartstrings of moviegoers, not only due to the acting of the movie stars, but also its touching story. The movie encapsulates a reality recognizable to many Koreans: the struggles that Korean elderly and their children face. Director Kyungmok Park (b. 1970) portrays a relationship between the elderly lady Marim Jeong and nursing care worker Miseon Lee from a humanistic point of view. Marim, aged 85, lives alone in Daegu, a city in the southern part of Korea. Her only child, a son named Jonguk Park, is living in Seoul but is in between jobs and unable to care for his mother on a regular basis. One day, Jonguk wants to visit his mother, but she slips and falls on the steps as she waits for him and breaks her left arm. Jonguk hires Miseon to care for his mother. Miseon herself has a mother who is hospitalized, and she works as a caregiver to pay for her mother’s medical fees. At first, Marim does not like Miseon, giving suspicious glances at her as seen in Figure 1. As time goes by, however, they go through things both pleasant and unpleasant together. When Miseon’s mother eventually passes away, Marim suggests that Miseon live with her thereafter. Marim chooses a caregiver, not her son Jonguk, to become a new family.

The movie’s plot is based on a true story that happened to Director Park, centered upon the conflicts between mother and son over how to take care of an aging and ailing parent. The son wants to fulfil his filial duty but cannot , especially since he needs to care for his wife and daughter while looking for a job and lives away from his mother. He takes out his frustration on his mother and she has occasional arguments with him, contrary to her true affection for her son. The movie’s subtitle, “To you who are more like family than me,” underlines a different type of familial bond between an elderly woman and a nursing care worker. Director Park suggests that such an “alternative family” can be born at a time when Korea is rapidly becoming a super-aged society . Director Park’s vocalization of the issue – of taking care of aging parents – through a public medium reflects how non-government actors are increasingly engaging with the issues faced by a super-aged society. At this juncture, it is pertinent to examine how the Korean Catholic Church responds to the struggles of their aging and ailing flock, and whether these actions are sufficient in a post-pandemic era.

Korean Elderly and Economic Difficulties

In 2000, Korea officially became an aging society with more than 7 percent of its population being older than 65. This percentage doubled in 2017, and Korea is projected to become a super-aged society with more than 20 percent of its population being older than 65 by 2025. Nevertheless, Korea is not fully prepared for a rapidly aging population in many ways. The most significant problem faced by families is the care of aging and ailing parents.

These problems could be resolved within the family in an earlier era with strong Confucian influences. Then, it was customary and obligatory for children to take care of their retired aging parents. Family structures have since become increasingly nuclear, and younger generations do not want to live with their parents after marriage. Consequently, it has now become customary that parents no longer live together with their children as they get older.

However, the elderly are not financially well-prepared for their latter days without the support of their children. Korea’s public pension system, including civil service pensions, military pensions, and private school pensions, was first introduced in 1960. In December 1986, the National Pension Act was revised to expand its coverage and the Korean baby boom generation born between 1955 and 1963 became the first beneficiaries of the national pension system. However, this system could not fully include the older generations born before 1955 – the generation who could not afford to save money for themselves as they were busy overcoming the hardship of the Japanese colonial rule (1910–1945) and then the Korean War (1950–1953) while raising their children.

Addressing the poverty of the pre-1955 generation, the Korean government implemented the Basic Pension System in July 2014. However, the amount of money is insufficient in alleviating the economic difficulties of the elderly. Admittedly, the relative poverty rate (the percentage of people living with an income below 50 percent of the median income of US$ 1,981 in 2020), of the elderly has moderately declined: from 47.8 percent in 2011 to 43.2 percent in 2019 to 40.4 percent in 2020. Nevertheless, Korea’s percentage of elderly poor remains the highest among the 38 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2018 (The Korea Times, April 6, 2022). In order to improve the quality of the life for the elderly over 65 years old, the Ministry of Health and Welfare recently announced that the single-household elderly over 65 years old with less than 2.02 million won (US$ 1,586) of monthly income (including personal pension) is eligible to receive about 321,950 won (US$ 255) of the basic pension monthly. A household comprising an elderly couple over 65 years old with less than 3.23 million won (US$ 2,535) is also entitled to receive the basic pension from January, 2023. It means a 4.7 percent increase in the pension amount from the previous year. About 6.65 million people are expected to benefit from the increase, compared to 6.28 million people last year. The ministry is planning to further extend the number of recipients to 70 percent out of its total elderly over 65 years old. However, the financial revenue needed for this extension is a pertinent concern.

Korean Elderly and High Suicide Rates

The aforementioned economic difficulties can lead to high suicide rates. According to Statistics Korea, the number of the people who died by suicide in 2020 reached 13,018, a slight decrease from the 13,799 of the previous year. This means that 35.6 people took their own lives each day. Regarding suicides, the demographic breakdown for 2020 is as follows:

The data from Statistics Korea illustrates that the suicide rates of men were more than twice that of women and that suicides were significantly higher in those aged 70 years old and over (Index). The chart, extracted from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED), shows South Korea with the highest suicide rates in the world with 24.6 suicides per 100,000 people in 2019. Japan, famous for its longevity, has 14.7 suicides. Finland, once notorious for higher suicide rates in the early 2000s, has 14.2 deaths. Turkey has the lowest suicide rates of 4.4, a sixth of South Korea’s number (data).

Why are the Korean elderly driven to take their own lives? A survey conducted by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHASA) reported that 21.1 percent of the senior citizens older than 65 showed symptoms of depression and 6.7 percent of them said they once thought of committing suicide. Among them, 13.2 percent attempted suicide in 2018. The following chart illustrates the various causes for considering or attempting suicide. Topping the list is economic difficulties, closely followed by personal health problems.

KBS News September 29, 2019.

To improve the economic situation of senior citizens, the Korean government has significantly increased the number of jobs available for them. However, many find difficulty in securing good jobs and live solely on pensions. Compounding their woes, the elderly find themselves increasingly vulnerable to various diseases as they age. The reality of having not enough money in their latter days yet having to endure illnesses is a great source of pain for them, leading to the high rates of depression and suicide. Furthermore, most of them are unable to ask for any financial help from their children who live separately in a remote city. To prevent the elderly from being abandoned by their children and driven to live in dire straits, both state and society have attempted to mitigate the sufferings of the elderly, but their efforts have yet to bear significant fruit.

The Korean Catholic Church’s Responses to Aging Population

As of December 31, 2020, the number of Korean Catholics had increased by a mere 0.15 percent (8,631 people) from the previous year. These statistics, obtained from the Bishop’s Conference of Korea, similarly indicate that more than 40% of the Catholic congregation were above the age of 55. In contrast, the number of Catholics over the age of 65 increased from 20.5 percent to 22.2 percent, reflecting a rapidly aging flock. (Statistics of the Catholic Church in Korea 2020. Bishop’s Conference of Korea).

In the face of this phenomenon of rapid aging, Caritas Seoul, established in 1976 by late Cardinal Stephen Sou-hwan Kim (1922–2009), convened a Senior Welfare Committee in February 2005. The Senior Welfare Committee aimed to raise awareness about the needs of senior citizens and served as the Church’s medium of outreach towards the elderly. Caritas means “love, affection, and charity” in Latin. As an official social welfare organization of the Catholic Church for the poor and marginalized, Caritas works to encourage love for God and neighbors.

In line with Caritas Seoul, the Seoul Archdiocese paid more attention to the practical needs of elderly in the same year of 2005. The Archdiocese held a forum on pastoral activities for elderly believers and organized a research institute. Moreover, the Church started the Senior Academy program. At the parish level, the academy operated once a week for ten weeks with two semesters in a year, targeting elderly participants in parishes across the nation. Each semester comprised of various contents with different instructors and volunteers conducting the classes. At the archdiocese level from 2007, the Catholic Senior Academy program sought believers from 55 to 64 years old. This program provided more intensive classes on various subjects – such as health management, inheritance, and nutrition to cope with aging – every Wednesday for two years over four semesters (Chosun ilbo, February 13, 2009). Unfortunately, these programs for the elderly were temporarily suspended due to COVID-19 and some of the parishes have restarted them from September last year.

Fig 2. Father Paul Bauna Cha of the Suicide Prevention Center Giving a Lecture to Senior Citizens on the Catholic Peace Broadcasting Corporation. Source: One Body One Spirit

A third arm of the Church reaching out to its aging flock is the One Body One Spirit movement (Its official title is One Body One Spirit). Responding to Korea’s high suicide rates, One Body One Spirit opened the Suicide Prevention Center to conduct various suicide prevention activities, including suicide prevention education, campaigns, and bereaved family care program in 2010. One Body One Spirit was established by Cardinal Stephen Kim in 1988 to realize the spirit of respect for life and practice sharing while preparing for the 44th Seoul World Eucharist Conference. This organization undertakes humanitarian relief work for the poor and the unprivileged at home and abroad. However, it must be noted that the Suicide Prevention Center does not exclusively focus on the problems faced by the elderly (Link).

Fig 3. Two Voluntary Workers are Serving Food to the Elderly at the Myeongdong Bapjip. Source: One Body One Spirit

When the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the nation in 2020, the elderly and the disadvantaged were more adversely affected. In order to provide free meals for the elderly and homeless, One Body One Spirit opened a soup kitchen Myeongdong Bapjip in January 2021 in Myeongdong where the Myeongdong Cathedral, the headquarters of the Korean Catholic Church, is located. Myeongdong Bapjip means “an eatery for home-cooked meals in Myeongdong” in Korean. The soup kitchen runs three days a week (Wed, Fri, and Sun) from 11:00 to 16:00 to offer a free meal to the homeless and senior citizens who live alone. This kitchen operates out of voluntary donations and financial support. Regardless of faith, volunteers from all walks of life work together in the kitchen, preparing food for over six to eight hundred people a day (See UCAN; Korea Times; Obos).

Fig 4. A Patient is Checking His Blood Pressure at the Raphael Nanum Clinic. Source: One Body One Spirit

Along with free meals, One Body One Spirit has provided free medical care to the homeless and the marginalized via the Raphael Nanum Homeless Clinic. ‘Nanum’ means ‘sharing’ in Korean. This clinic, opened on 13 June 2021, operates every Sunday from 14:00 with the help of volunteers who are doctors, nurses, medical students, and lay Catholics (Nanum, UCAN)

However, it must be recognized that most of the facilities mainly focus on the poor and the marginalized, and do not directly address the sufferings of all the aging Catholic congregation. In a post-pandemic era, the Church should extend their activities to emphasize a clear outreach, focusing specifically on its ailing elderly. These ailing elderlies need spiritual support and consolation, even though they do not need financial support. It is believed that the Korean Catholic Church can work for them more. It is just a matter of the heart.

Fr. Hwang’s Special Lecture Series on the Happiness of Old Age

Fig 5. Father Benedict Changyeon Hwang Giving a Lecture on the Happiness of Old Age. Source: Catholic Peace Broadcasting Corporation

The retreat program run by Saint Philip’s Eco-village in Pyeongchang, Gangwon Province is one of the few opportunities available for the elderly to congregate in attendance, even though it is also temporarily suspended due to COVID-19. Pyeongchang was the venue for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea. The Director of the Saint Philip’s Eco-village, Father Benedict Changyeon Hwang (b. 1965), originally gave his famous special lectures on the Happiness of Old Age to the visitors of his eco-village. His lecture series was so successful that it eventually aired on the Catholic TV broadcasting station CPBC from 2008. The strong reception of Father Hwang’s message is reflected in numerous lecture invitations by companies and TV stations, as well as his reputation of being a ‘happiness evangelist.’ Father Hwang focuses on the elderly, emphasizing how they can live their lives independently and happily. He encourages them to change their mindset in accordance with a changed society, using practical experiences from his priestly ministry and hoping to enable them to spend their late years happily.

Arguing that the twenty-first century is an era for the elderly, Father Hwang declares that they are living in a time in which filial piety has ceased to exist and only love is left between parents and children. Accordingly, the elderly should become accustomed to living alone, independently but happily. To this end, he advises them to preserve three things―money, friends, and health―until death. In particular, he notes that it is not wise to hand down all their assets to their children without preparing for their latter days. Such arguments challenge traditional ways of thinking common in Korean society, echoing Director Park’s message in Take Care of My Mom in a way (Youtube).

Filial piety has had a strong cultural impact in Asia, especially due to longstanding Confucian influences. Confucianism was Korea’s national ideology during the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Hence, filial piety has been regarded as the most virtuous duty of children; a culture ingrained over centuries. However, as lifespans lengthen, parents and children must grow older together in an aging society. Accordingly, taking care of aging and ailing parents increasingly becomes a difficulty for individuals and families, creating a burden for the children and causing conflict in the family. At this juncture, Father Hwang’s lecture series on the happiness of old age has resonated greatly both within and beyond the Church, gaining national popularity. His message, of filial piety and caring for one’s old age, has reached Koreans with various religious views, including Protestants and those who have no religion as well.

Conclusions: Catholic “Religion” in the Post-Pandemic Era

Following the decrease in the number of new COVID-19 patients, the Korean government eased social distancing requirements and then lifted its outdoor mask mandate on May 2, 2022, downgrading the infectious disease status to Level 2. As Korea moves forward into a post-COVID-19 era, the Korean Catholic Church is also required to prepare for a return to normalcy. However, a survey conducted by the Uijeongbu Diocese among the priests and laypersons in May 2020 predicted that the number of Catholic believers will be reduced. Catholics have grown accustomed to not attending physical Masses in the parish due to social distancing policies. Subsequently, it is expected to become harder to find Church volunteers and each parish is likely to experience financial difficulties (Donghyeon Kyeong. 2021. “Paendeomik ihu ui kyohoe: Mueosul junbihaeya halgga?” [The church after pandemic: What to prepare?]. (Catholic Review (Summer) no. 32: 127–128.

A poll conducted in May 2021 attests to the abovementioned predictions. Gallop Korea interviewed 1,500 Koreans across the nation to poll their religions. Among them, Protestants amounted for 17 percent, followed by the Buddhists with 16 percent, Catholics with 6 percent, and those who did not have any religious affiliation with 60 percent. In the previous survey done in 2014, Buddhists took 22 percent, Protestants 21 percent, Catholics 7 percent, and those with no religion 50 percent. It is noted that those who think there is no need to have religion increased from 50 percent to 60 percent, the highest since Gallop Korea started the survey on religion in 1984. Catholics’ religious activities were also greatly reduced from 59 percent in 2014 to 42 percent in 2021, mainly due to social distancing caused by the COVID-19. In popularity (likability) by people with no religion, Buddhism took first place with 20 percent, followed by Catholicism with 13 percent, Protestantism with 6 percent, and no likable religious affiliation with 61 percent, compared with 25 percent of Buddhism, 18 percent of Catholicism, 10 percent of Protestantism, and 46 percent of no likeable religious affiliation in 2014 (Gallup).

How, then, should the Korean Catholic Church prepare for the post-pandemic era? One solution could be to return to a foundational understanding of religion. The English word “religion” comes from “religio” in Latin. Regarding its etymological meaning, there are three arguments; 1) Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE) explains how “religio” originated from “re-ligere,” which means re-read, that is: coming to know again, 2) Lantantius (250–325) maintains that the word stems from “re-legare,” meaning re-tie, that is: to be one again, and 3) St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) contends that the term comes from “re-eligere,” meaning re-choose. Based on these three arguments, religion can be defined as an endeavor to rediscover the lost truth, looking for the object of love again; and in doing so, become united as one, and choose eternal happiness (Dosik Park. “Jonggyo geu eowon jeok uimi” [Religion: Its etymological meaning]. Catholic Times. May 24, 1987). To regain the true meaning of religion, the church should start with setting a goal for the post-pandemic era.

Fig 6. Senior Citizens Waiting for Treatment at the Asan Medical Center in Seoul

The Korean Catholic Church has followed the government’s quarantine guidelines well, closing their gates to physical congregations to prevent the spread of the pandemic. In doing so, they have neglected the suffering voices of their flock outside the Church and their pleas for help. Like Marim Jeong in the movie, the elderlies need a helping hand when they fall ill. Living alone or living with their aging spouse has become the most common phenomenon in Korea. According to Statistics Korea, the number of single-person households amounted to 1,661,000 households in 2020, with 35.1 percent out of the total being elderly households. Among them, those who were at their 70s took highest place with 44.1 percent. By gender, women accounted for 71.9 percent (Baeksesidae [An era to live until 100 years old]. October 1, 2021).

As the number of the single elderly households is likely to keep increasing, there will be many more Ms. Marim Jeongs and Mr. Marim Jeongs in an aging society like Korea. The fundamental meaning of religion is to restore the precious meaning of life given to humans, in other words, to choose eternal happiness, find the path of eternal hope, and finally become one with God, who is life itself, and happiness, and love. Thus, it is time for the Korean Catholic Church to mull over some more practical and feasible solutions to reconnect with their aging and ailing flock like Marim Jeong again.

*Jieun Han is a visiting scholar at the Institute for East Asian Studies in Sogang University in Seoul, Korea. She obtained her PhD in Church History at Yonsei University in 2017. Her research interests include Marianism, the Korean Catholic Church during the Cold War, and Martyrdom during the Korean War (1950–1953).


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