The Elderly: A Korean Horror Story

“I’m hungry, I don’t need respect, I don’t need honor, I just want three meals a day.”

On a night of ghouls and goblins, instead of military police and a menagerie of drunken expats, a few brave souls donned the most frightening costumes in Itaewon: the ajeossi and ajumma costume. When translated, these words literally mean middle-aged man or woman who is married, but their common use by foreigners often depicts elderly Koreans. And unlike the nocturnal nightmares that roamed the streets of Itaewon that Halloween night, the ajeossi and ajumma costumes were the most frightening for one reason — their horror story is real.

While ‘golden years’ describe the graceful and leisure-seeking period after retirement in America, Korean retirement is currently typecast as futile years of isolation, abandonment, poverty, and depression. Articles on this subject are so disheartening readers outside of Korea risk concluding senior citizens live in a dystopian hell. 

There was the story of the elderly woman who committed suicide in front of her city hall by drinking pesticide. She protested the withdrawal of her welfare checks by the government after her son-in-law found employment.

There was this note, will, and two funeral pictures left by the eighty-two year old man and his wife for his son-in-law. The note read, “ I don’t want to be a burden on my children.” The couple ended their lives.

There was a visit by a social worker to a Korean War veteran who lived in a condemned apartment heated by a single electric blanket. His remaining life ambition is to outlive his wife — so he can take care of her— because she suffers from dementia. He struggles to carefully budget the 300 dollars provided to him by the government and charitable organizations every month. He said the worst part of his existence is loneliness.

There were these elderly prostitutes working in public parks to avoid starvation. One exclaimed, “I’m hungry, I don’t need respect, I don’t need honor, I just want three meals a day.” Four hundred women work in Jongmyo Park alone, encouraging their male clients to share needles and inject medicine to induce erections.

There was this reporter who followed a ninety-year old halmeoni (grandma or old woman) for an entire day. She participates in a meretricious government program collecting recyclable goods for money. The reporter discovered the disabled woman, whose upper torso remained parallel to the ground when walking, spent most of day abusing her fragile body by pulling around a heavy cart. She earns eight cents per kilogram of trash collected, but she is incapable of collecting trash quickly. Unfortunately, this practice is prevalent and competitive in Seoul.

Senior Citizens vs. Poverty, Depression, and Suicide

The negative perception of elderly life in Korea is not without merit. Life in South Korea is daunting for many seniors. Poverty, depression, and suicide are serious problems that require immediate attention.

The chief problem among senior citizens is poverty. Korea ranks 67th in income security for the elderly, which qualifies as the worst in Asia. Nearly half — 45.1% of those sixty-five or older — live in relative poverty, struggling to survive on less than half of the country’s median household income. Among seniors who live by themselves, more than 76% live in poverty. In comparison, the average rate of elderly poverty among all other OECD countries is a meager 13.5%.




In a culture that prizes economic worth and contribution, poverty can lead to severe depression. Poverty not only damages self-perception, but in Korea fiscal impotence can lead to being ostracized from the community.

The impact of poverty on depression in Korea is further demonstrated by comparing suicides among age groups. The substantial increase in suicide after turning sixty is alarming.




Senior citizens account for 28.1% of all suicides in Korea, silently quadrupling the averages of all other age groups in an already suicide-laden country. Attempted suicides by the elderly are also ten times higher than the rest of the industrialized world. Many experts agree that most of the elderly endure harsh economic conditions and severe depression before taking their own lives. 

What the Hell Happened?

It would appear that the generation that selflessly ushered Korea from a poverty-stricken state to an enviable world-class economy was abandoned by their government and families. Korea spends less on the elderly, a paltry 1.9% of its GDP, than all members of the OECD besides Mexico. Additionally, children no longer support their parents like they did in the past. The fall of senior citizens, nonetheless, is not a conscious decision by the Korean people, but a byproduct of a traditional culture that could not keep pace with a meteoric economic transformation.

For generations, the rural/agrarian/Confucianist culture of South Korea reinforced the idea of filial piety. Parents shouldered the enormous financial burden of supporting their children until marriage, and, in return, children supported their parents after retirement. Nonetheless, Korea’s rapid ascent to prosperity following the Korean War saw the forces of urbanization and industrialization break up the family, divide generations, and erode filial piety.

Even in 1980, child-to-parent monetary transfers accounted for 72% of the total income of elderly people. In 2003, however, transfers dropped to a mere 31%. Over the past decade, the percentage of children who think they should help support their parents shrunk from 90% to 37%. While 70% of seniors lived with their children in 1990, that number dropped below 30% in the beginning of the 21st century. Additionally, seniors became more reluctant to receive help from their children. In Korea’s modern society, filial piety is no longer a viable option for supporting the elderly.

Until recently, the government did not need a strong pension or welfare system to assist the elderly because filial piety ensured family support. When filial piety withered away, the pension and welfare systems created could easily be labeled “too little, too late.” The pension and welfare systems need more time to grow.

Even with recent improvements by the Park Geun-Hye administration, the most seniors are eligible to receive is approximately 190 dollars per month. This is a recent increase from ninety dollars a month, but only the poorest 70% qualify to receive support. This amount fails to pay rent and it only provides for a few days of food. If a child is part of a family that earns 130% of the national average, the elder remains ineligible for benefits regardless of family support.

Despite the decreasing support from children and the reluctance of seniors to burden their children, older generations continue to invest a large portion of their earnings into Korea’s ungodly financial demands for their children’s education. It is not uncommon for parents to spend upwards of one-third or one-fourth of their income for private education for their children.   

This type of extravagant spending does not end when a child turns eighteen, but parents continue supporting their children until marriage. Parental support can continue well past a child’s thirtieth birthday. Educational advantages are crucial in Korea’s competitive society and parents often forsake their retirement planning to invest in their children’s expensive upbringing. The cost of education is a primary reason for low birth rates and a super aging population in Korea. 

Finally, the mandatory retirement age for most employment contracts in Korea is fifty-five. Most senior citizens do not find jobs with equal pay after retirement as younger workers are viewed as more productive. This explains why many seniors can be seen throughout Seoul working entry-level positions. 

Obviously, the loss of ten years of salary is detrimental for retirement. More problematic is that seniors lose another ten years of contributions to retirement funds. The last ten years of compound interest in any retirement plan are the most lucrative — they are often crucial for securing retirement. There is little doubt that mandatory retirement at fifty-five severely cripples the financial position of seniors across Korea.

According to statistics conducted by the National Statistical Office in 2011, only less than 40 percent of senior citizens who are over 65 years old answered that they have been preparing for old age so far. It implies that the rest of 60 percent mainly have to depend on little government subsidies or support from society in order to make a living.

Before attributing blame over the suffering of some senior citizens, it’s important to remember that an entire country, not just senior citizens, was impoverished and starving after the Korean War. South Koreans were so poor and hungry they often boiled and ate tree bark to survive, despite knowing the high amount of fiber would cause their anuses to rupture and bleed during excretion.

Some seniors suffer now, but an entire nation suffered a few decades ago. Often in history, rapid changes — including positive social and economic progress — leave behind potholes to be filled. No improvement is perfect, and change always indirectly hurts someone. Korea is a much better place than fifty years ago, but Korea must now fix problems caused by its own success. 

Korea’s Greatest Generation?

Despite all the challenges facing the elderly in South Korea, they remain steadfast in adversary.  Surrounded by Korea’s modern technological and financial achievements, they are the few remaining soldiers fighting the last remnants of the Korean War.  The media focuses solely on those who are suffering, but this concentration on suicide and poverty does not paint a complete picture.  If there is massive suffering, it is either overstated or most of the elderly I encountered remain resolute in their pride for Korea and their gaiety for life.  I would describe the elderly as one of the most vibrant groups of Koreans I came across during my four year stay.

My point in sharing anecdotal experiences is not to invalidate the statistics of suffering seniors — they need help.  But, I hope my thoughts and experiences illuminate that there are many senior citizens in Korea who are still engaged and happy. If Scott Fitzgerald were alive, he would describe them as a jaunty bunch. This group of senior citizens rarely appears in headlines, but their positive presence is unmistakable in my daily life.      

These are the senior citizens that can be found on every hiking trail overtaking amateurs with bottles of soju in tow.

They are on every market corner tirelessly prepping produce or preparing meals.

They are artisans preserving or creating culture through refined craftsmanship.

They are often spotted in the wee-hours of the morning on that oddly designed fitness equipment.

Whether at dawn or late night, they are the omnipresent ingredients effortlessly creating a Brent sandwich on the subway.

They can be found enjoying each other’s company over a game of checkers by the Han River or arguing politics over a Cass at one of the numerous neighborhood chicken hoffs.

At dusk, they create the most memorable silhouettes near the open sea by casting their fishing nets over the water.

These are the senior citizens that inhabit Seoul.They run circles around the work-prone zombies and impersonal younger generations.They certainly run circles around the elderly from the States. They are productive and — to hell with all the negative press — they are hopeful.

I’ve come to appreciate the elderly of Korea as an inseparable part of this country’s beauty and charm. It is not uncommon to find photographers who remove people as distractions from their landscapes, cityscapes, or shots of cultural milieu. I believe, in Korea, these shots are not nearly as beautiful or complete without the well-earned placement of a stalwart of Korea’s past. The positivity and productivity of senior citizens transcends what appears to be overwhelming odds, and it only adds to my nostalgia and appreciation of this special generation of Koreans.

If being old in Korea is a nightmare, many of the elderly shaped their reality into a beautiful nightmare. The world should not only admire how this generation transformed Korea, but how their spirit and character refuses to go gently into that good night.

They are Korea’s true embodiment of “fighting.”

Korean Senior Citizen 12Korean Senior Citizen 11Korean Senior Citizen 10

Korean Senior Citizen 8Korean Senior Citizen 7Korean Senior Citizen 6Korean Senior Citizen 4Korean Senior Citizen 2Korea Senior Citizen 1Senior Citizens-5Senior Citizens-4Senior Citizens-3Senior Citizens-2

A special thanks to Nathan Chesky for his outstanding photography contribution and inspiration for writing this article.  Please visit his Facebook page to view more of his beautiful portraits and landscapes of Korea.  Click here — NRC Photography.  


Cha, Eunjung. “True Meaning of Welfare For the Elderly Who Are Living in Poverty – South Korean Human Rights Monitor.” South Korean Human Rights Monitor RSS. November 2, 2012. Accessed December 21, 2014.

Gho, Julia. “Suicide Rates High among South Korean Elderly.” Calvin College Chimes RSS. April 5, 2013. Accessed December 21, 2014.

Harlan, Chico. “South Korea’s Rapid Economic Rise Leaves Many of Its Elderly Facing Poverty.” The Guardian. January 24, 2014. Accessed December 21, 2014.

Jae-Ho, Han. “45% of South Koreans Aged 65 and over Live in Poverty.” Quartz. October 13, 2013. Accessed December 21, 2014.

Koo, Se-Woong. “No Country for Old People.” KOREA EXPOS. September 24, 2014. Accessed December 21, 2014.

Lee, Sun Jae. “Poverty amongst the Elderly in South Korea: The Perception, Prevalence, and Causes and Solutions.” International Journal of Social Science and Humanity 4, no. 3, 242-45.

Lee, Yena. “Tough Times for Korean Elders.” The Diplomat. November 28, 2014. Accessed December 21, 2014.Oh, Kyeung Mi, and Anthony M. Warnes. “Care Services for Frail Older People in South Korea.” Ageing & Society 21, no. 6 (2001): 701-20.

Nwoye, Irene. “Elderly Women In South Korea Turn To Prostitution To Keep From Starving.” Slate. June 11, 2014. Accessed December 21, 2014.

Oh, Kyeung Mi, and Anthony M. Warnes. “Care Services for Frail Older People in South Korea.” Ageing & Society 21, no. 6 (2001): 701-18

Sang-hun, Choe. “As Families Change, Korea’s Elderly Are Turning to Suicide.” The New York Times. February 16, 2013. Accessed December 21, 2014. 

So-Youn, Kim. “Suicide Rate Rising for Older South Korean Men.” : National : Home. September 24, 2014. Accessed December 21, 2014. 

Yoo, Audrey. “Filial Pity: Is South Korea Doing Enough to Stop Elderly Suicides? TIME.  ” World Filial Pity Is South Korea Doing Enough to Stop Elderly Suicides Comments. March 25, 2013. Accessed December 21, 2014.

“Poor Spirits.” The Economist. December 7, 2013. Accessed December 21, 2014.


19 Comments Add yours

  1. Ajummas are lude says:

    Oh is that why most of them are so freaking rude, pushy, and entitled????


    1. I’m saddened if that’s what you take away from this.


    2. adam says:

      Sorry to hear you came away bitter from your experience.


  2. Hate Korean old people says:

    The poverty & being abandoned in old ages are something you can find in every country but NOWHERE nowhere you can find these huge amount of rude, impolite & mean old men and women! They spit, fart, push, insult people in the street, subway, bus everywhere & they always think just because they are old, they are allowed to do whatever they want! That is disgusting! even young generation in Korea hate them. they are ashamed of this wrong culture. I am sorry for South Koreans, with so many nice things to be proud of but this one totally sucks!!! Old people pretend they can’t walk fast & they are in pain, but just as soon as they see an empty chair they forget about their illness & run & push others to get to that chair! They always smell like garlic & kimchi which makes you wanna vomit!


  3. Garry M says:

    Great piece Brent. I’ve been thinking about this a great deal since I read those OECD poverty statistics a few months ago. SK really needs to act on this quickly – it’s such a dreadful reflection on the nation.


  4. Ron says:

    While South Korea takes the biggest chunk, it sadly seems that all of Asia has high rates of suicide for the elderly. This is incredibly sad news knowing that when my parents first took me to Korea, the elderly were met with reverence and respect. I remember how the elderly were an important part of my parent’s family and it’s sad to see what has devolved.


  5. secretmap says:

    Epic piece Brent. I’ve learned a lot from observing and bumping elbows with the old folk out here. There’s a etiquette divide between them and the young/foreign population but at least they’re not walking at snails pace in their masses, glued to their gmarket app, handbag shopping and sending an emotion every 3 steps on kakao.


  6. koreamaria says:

    Thank you for writing this. There needs to be more attention to find solutions to these social issues and remove the link between the adult child’s income to the benefits received by their elder parent.

    Another aspect that you didn’t mention is that the life expectancy of South Koreans has also improved – people are living longer than ever before – despite the high suicide rate. So, retiring at 55 doesn’t just mean another 10 years of no income, but that the pension also needs to last until the new average of 81 years of life.

    Additionally, women are even more at risk for not having worked outside of the home and not having their own pension or retirement plan.


    1. Wonderful and thoughtful. Thank you. There were quite a few things I didn’t cover. I’ve been surprised by the amount of people who actually read the entire article.


    1. Thanks, I’m a big fan of the best new blog in Korea 😉 Congrats!


  7. Interesting piece. I especially liked this passage:

    “The media focuses solely on those who are suffering, but this concentration on suicide and poverty does not paint a complete picture. … My point in sharing anecdotal experiences is not to invalidate the statistics of suffering seniors — they need help. But, I hope my thoughts and experiences illuminate that there are many senior citizens in Korea who are still engaged and happy.”

    ps. Since you linked to an article based on Lucy Williamson’s report about elderly selling sexual services and companionship, and prominently featured a quote from her article at the very top, please take a look at my response to her piece, which, in my view, is a quite superficial and biased view on a complex situation. And while elderly poverty (and youth unemployment) in South Korea are real concerns that deserve much attention, Williamson’s poverty porn does not.


  8. Arran says:

    Brilliant article, it’s good to see that a lesser known aspect of modern Korea being covered in such detail.


    1. Thanks, please share on Facebook or twitter to spread the word.


  9. Judith says:

    Great how this topic is being discussed accompanied by beautiful photography! The contrast of everyone having an iPhone 6+ next to halmeoni’s who have to pick garbage for survival saddens me. Also young people’s attitude towards the elderly is disturbing “They’re just poor/old/old&poor/”.


    1. It’s sad but the topic needs to be discussed. Please share the article with others!


  10. Noah says:

    Hi Brent. it was great experience for me to see my country through foreigner’s stand of view. and other comments too. Some comments were bitter to take it but it’s their right to think that way. Thank you so much to wrote your experience and thought. I learn a lot of my country. Cheer.


  11. Hi Brent 🙂

    I recently posted on an “expats” page in Korea asking about these exact individuals. I got some pretty vague responses (from Koreans and foreigners) and decided to abandon my questions until someone directed me to your blog and a few other articles.

    Thank you so much for sharing this information. I took notice of these Ajumma and Adoshi from the first week of being here and have been enquiring about them through the past 2+ years… Only now, after reading this, do I feel satisfied with a factual answer. Thank you for highlighting the truth of the situation and sharing a very thoughtful and admirable understanding of these elderly people.

    I feel there should be more done for them and understanding the situation is the first step. Many Koreans don’t know anything about them either, or maybe they refuse to acknowledge that there is a problem.

    In anycase, this has been an interesting and informative read so thanks 🙂


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