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Lonely Death: Shade of Single-Person Household Generation

As different types of family have emerged and replaced nuclear families, single households have become increasingly more common. Although many of such single households are people who chose to live by themselves, there are some people who are forced to live alone, whether due to economic problems or familial issues. In the latter case, most are elderly citizens cast away by their family. Living alone poses a difficult problem for the elderly, and many suffer through what is known as “lonely death,” a phenomenon in which senior citizens pass away alone in the house and often go unnoticed for days. The Sungkyun Times (SKT) analyzes the reality of this phenomenon, investigates its main causes by interviewing the staff of a counselling center in Seoul, and suggests ways to prevent lonely death.

The Reality of Lonely Death


“Lonely death” means to depart this life alone, separated from any family member or acquaintance. This term is especially used when a corpse is left to decompose without intervention. Unfortunately, there are also cases known as “suspected lonely death,” in which policemen can assume a death to be a lonely death even if there is no evidence of decomposition on the body.

Lonely Death in Recent Times

According to the Seoul Welfare Foundation, in 2015, 1,245 people passed away alone, 318 of whom lived in Seoul. When cases of suspected lonely death are included in the statistic, the number of annual lonely death cases reaches approximately 2,300. This means that on average, 6.4 lonely deaths occur daily. Frequent occurrences of lonely death have even given a rise to new occupations such as keepsake cleaners and corpse sweepers. When considering the type of residential district, it is observed that lonely deaths most frequently occur in slice room neighborhoods, so called jjokbang-chon in Korean, and multiplex houses. Because slice rooms and multiplex houses have an impassable and isolated structure, it is difficult for other people to access the buildings and check the residences. Currently, there are about 1.25 million elderly citizens living alone who are considered to be at high risk of lonely death, and the number is estimated to reach 3.43 million in 2035. Although the elderly are at the most risk, lonely death is also a serious problem for the middle-aged. This is due to welfare services being focused on the elderly, meaning that the middle- aged individuals cannot receive suitable benefits. Unemployment and family issues are some of the other causes of middle-aged lonely death. Bodies are often first found by landlords or government workers, specifically during routine checks to take rent or bills. In other cases, bodies are only found once they decompose and the putrid scent causes neighbors to file a police report. This goes to show just how separated victims of lonely death are from their surroundings. With the addition of expensive funeral costs, many people who find the bodies agree to simply dispose of them. The abandoned corpses are usually donated for medical research or moved and cremated as per government regulations. Unfortunately, without contact from other people, corpses are sometimes discovered after a number of years, or in the worst cases, are never found.

Images of Jjokbang Village

Why Does Lonely Death Occur?

Jjokbang: a unique type of slice room in Korea maintained by an unlicensed leasing service. It is a room for rent that is 3㎡ to 9㎡ in size and has no individual toilet or kitchen. It is a residential type where lonely death occurs most frequently. As the recent heat wave overwhelmed cities in Korea, the risk of lonely death increased exponentially due to inadequate cooling systems, with many jjokbang residents living without even small electric fans. This is because they are unable to afford the installation fees for air conditioning and have difficulties overcoming economic problems. The SKT interviewed a staff member at a Seoul jjokbang neighborhood counselling center in order to obtain more accurate information about lonely death.

Q1. Are there any residents who keep in touch with their relatives?

Not all residents have no relatives. Most of them cannot or do not keep in touch with their relatives, but some still do.

Q2. How do the residents earn their living?

Most of the residents receive a bare minimum of the living wage. The government offers them a rental fee of about \250 thousand for their slice room. However, there are also self-support job workers and day laborers. Usually, people with disabilities do self-supporting works which have a relatively less intense workload with a shorter working hour. Although the wage of self-support laborers varies depending on the intensity of the work, it is generally around \57 million, one third of which is used to pay for their room.

Q3. Have you ever seen a case of lonely death? What was the reason for the death?

Thanks to the protection systems like the home care nursing system, it becomes relatively easier to take care of the elderly who are included in the high-risk group of lonely death. Nevertheless, the reason for the repeated occurrence of lonely death is that the health problem is not managed properly. Diseases such as alcohol intoxication, diabetes, and hypertension are the main problems. These kinds of illnesses should be treated consistently. However, in most cases, patients are left untreated for financial reasons. Additionally, in spite of the prescription from the hospital, the residents have difficulty dealing with the disease by themselves. Although we recognize the seriousness of lonely death and do our best to reduce the number of its occurrence, it is difficult to come up with a prompt resolution which is such a big pity.

Q4. There might be some problems that you as a counsellor cannot solve. If you do, please tell us anything that you would like to ask for the government or people around.

The problems we cannot solve are the legal matters. The counselling center cannot offer direct aids when dealing with people with bad credit, but can only connect residents with the related organization. We hope the procedure of solving legal problems become much simpler. For the general public, we would like to say please do not to treat the residents of the jjokbang village only with a sympathetic eye. Although it is really a small amount, some inhabitants save and deposit their money. Furthermore, there are residents who feel satis_ed about their life by working hard. But, at the same time, please do not neglect these people because you may think it is none of your business. It would be nice to pay at least a little attention to them.

The Way to Go Toward, to Prevent Lonely Death

Korea’s Prevention Policy, Following That of Japan

Happy Senior Citizens with Proper Policies

A few years ago, the Korean government has constructed some manuals to prevent lonely death. For example, the “reassurance card” that has information including the phone numbers of the owner’s family members, safety confirmation call service, and home- visit service based on the “Lonely death zero project” originally carried out in Japan. Moreover, for those who are at particular risk like depression patients, counselling organizations are implementing a depression text and suicide prevention education. In spite of these efforts by the Korean government, it does not seem to make much of a progress due to the lack of workforce. While the total number of senior citizens who live alone is 119 million, there are only 50,400 workers assigned to them. Among 119 million of them, only about 17 million senior citizens are receiving benefits, and the rest of them are excluded from this service.

Actual “Lonely Death Zero Project” in Japan

The Japanese government encourages some leisure activities and offers counselling service by running “relief cafes” in villages that have many senior citizens. Not only are the registration of the “reassurance card” and counselling service implemented, but also the 24-hour-nursing system is well structured. The technical side is also much more sophisticated. Local governments have established a system which can take care of the seniors by checking the usage of electricity and gas. They attach the electricity unit to home appliances and estimate the data by checking the usage of electricity. From the data, the experts can detect the seniors’ daily life pattern. For example, if a person turns on the light or starts cooking in the kitchen, sensors in the room can detect the light and temperature.

Many people around us meet their death alone before we even notice. Lonely death is especially a bitter reality for the residents in jjokbang villages who suffer from severe economic problems and hardships of living. Although Korea is trying hard to prevent lonely death by implementing some policies, the systems are incomplete and make not much of a difference whether they exist or not. Citizens should also pay attention to the situation to relieve this situation, by doing even some minor things such as volunteer works or non-profit donations.

강가은  ge0923@skku.edu

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