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As "Lone Deaths" Rise in U.S., Korean Elders "Reverse Immigrate" Home

Posted: Jul 09, 2012

Photo: Deuk Yong Jang, 58, shown in photo is among Koreans in the U.S. who have “reverse immigrated” back home to avoid becoming isolated here in old age and suffering a “lone death.” (Korea Daily)

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ATLANTA--The number of Korean seniors living alone in the United States more than doubled from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census. And in Korean culture, with its deep tradition of family care for elders, that’s an alarming fact signaling that many will succumb to a “lone death,” the Korean phrase for spending one’s last days in isolation.

Then how come Korean families, with all the traditional value placed on serving seniors, leave so many alone? Y.M. Kim, of Duluth, Ga., may provide a good example.

Recession Triggers So. Korea Return

Deuk Yong Jang, 58, recently “reverse immigrated” back to South Korea. He ended his 13 years in the United States and returned to his hometown in Jeju Island.

He moved to New Jersey in 1997, and worked as an electrical engineer at a company where his friend was the firm’s CEO. With his friend’s help, he got permanent U.S. residency and became an American citizen.

But the company was hit hard by the recession in 2008, and Jang and his friend both lost their jobs. Jang decided that I would be extremely difficult for him to get another job, so he decided to go back home.

Jang gave up Korean citizenship when he became an American, but he has no major difficulty living in Korea with an F4 foreigner’s visa. Jang said, “My children are all grown up, and I don’t see them often anyway since they all live in different states. I’ve made enough money and had enough experience living in the U.S.”

He also added, “I don’t want to die alone where I don’t know anyone. I’d rather go back to my hometown to family and friends.”

The fear of “lone death” is being seen everywhere in Korean American community.

According to the South Korean foreign ministry, 2,122 Korean Americans “reverse immigrated” to South Korea in 2011. That’s a 60.9 percent increase since 2006, when only 1,319 people moved back, according to official records. The number is probably somewhat larger because many return to Korea without the foreigner’s visa.

Another sign of that reverse immigration is a trend is that some Korean towns are developing “Korean American senior towns” for these folks.

The “lone death” is not an individual issue, but a social with a profound impact on Korean immigrant society in the United States.

Little to Live On—and Cancer

Kim, 60, lived on her own in a cold room on Duluth Hill Drive when we interviewed her last December. She had a surgery for cancer of the gallbladder, but recovered on her own. Her only son was not close by, and her only monthly income was $107 in food stamps and a $225 disability benefit.

Although she was a permanent resident of the United States, Kim was younger than 62, the earliest age to qualify for Social Security. She sold her car to pay for her surgery. She walked to the grocery store to get food. And members of her church brought some food and checked to see if she was okay.

Kim moved to the United States in 1985, and soon divorced her husband. Left with a son to raise by herself, she earned her living working as a kitchen helper at a Korean restaurant. But the restaurant did not survive the Great Recession and closed in 2009.

Her son also lost his job during that period. He left the area to seek other work and never came back. That children do not have enough money to take care of their parents is considered shameful in the Korean community.

In the midst of all of this, Kim became ill and was diagnosed with cancer--gallbladder carcinoma. She didn’t have enough money for her surgery and asked for help from the Korean American Association of Greater Atlanta (KAAGA) and the Pan Asian Community Center. Until that point, she did not even know how to apply for food stamps.

Kim finally had surgery in August 2011, but her health was still poor. Afraid she would feel even more isolated in a nursing home, she insisted on staying in her rented room and waiting for her son. “I wish he would comes back before I die,” she said last winter.

But Kim died in a local hospice with none of her family present. A local Korean Catholic church provided for Kim’s funeral.

Kim’s case is representative of the problem Korean society is going through. University of Maryland gerontologist, Banghwa Lee Casado, an expert on eldercare for Korean Americans, several factors contributing to the growth of situations like Kim’s.

Korean Seniors in U.S. Have Doubled

Casado, a John A. Hartford Faculty Scholar at the university, explained that the Korean senior population is rapidly increasing nationwide. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, over 140,000 Korean seniors live in this country among 1.7 million Korean Americans. That’s a 100 percent increase since 2000.

In addition, the 2010 Census shows that about 60 percent of Koreans in the U.S. have low proficiency in English--and the seniors have even bigger language problem. Korean seniors and their families in this country usually lack knowledge about social programs, such food stamp or Social Security. And limitations of access to social and health programs for immigrants also complicate their ability cope with life here.

The worsening economy also leaves families little financial room to support seniors, as Kim and her son discovered. In 2010, one of five families supported their elders, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult. The foreclosure crisis is especially difficult. Losing a home often means breaking traditional family structure.

A further problem is that Korean seniors tend to shy away from being admitted to nursing homes. The 2010 Census shows only 2,281 Koreans in nursing homes nationally. Korean seniors feel socially marginalized in nursing homes. They usually prefer to live with their families or friends.

Sang Soo Park, a senior living in Atlanta, said, “Nursing homes are run mostly with white residents in mind. The food is bad, and other residents complain the smell of Korean food. I’d rather live on my own, even if that means being poor.”

According to Hyo-Yeon Yim of Sejong Cyber University, the fear of a lone death may cause serious damage to Korean immigrant society. Older people remain fearful, while their families feel guilty for failing to take care of their elders, all of which may cause internal conflict in families, frequently causing anxiety and mistrust.

Furthermore, local Korean American communities may also bear the guilt of its systematic failure to take care of its most vulnerable members. But some have developed ways to counter the problem.

8 in 10 Unaware of Available Help

One way is utilizing local respite care and adult day health care programs, where they are available. (Because these programs are often subsidized by Medicaid, some states are cutting back on them due to budget constraints.) Respite care programs employ trained individuals to temporarily take care of those with disabilities or elders. Casado said, "When a family reaches an agreement on how it should take care of their seniors, respite care could be a good option."

But language barriers and lack of needed information are keeping Korean seniors from receiving services.

The University of Maryland’s Casado found in a study she conducted of 146 Korean American seniors that they have an extremely low usage level of respite care and related family care services. Eight in 10 were not even aware of such services.

Additionally, Korean communities in Washington, D.C., Seattle, Atlanta and other cities with substantial concentrations of Koreans are holding regular meetings to get their seniors informed about available programs and practical help. Volunteers are visiting seniors every week, for example, to bring them food.

Atlanta lags behind the growing demand in this respect. Sang Ho Na, president of Atlanta’s Korean American Senior's Association, noted, "For 20 years, our organization was not aware of how to get support from the government. We got our 501-C3 [nonprofit] status last year," America’s designation for nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations.

Also emerging are Korean- or Asian-focused senior living centers. Lawrenceville's Misun hospice is helping Korean seniors face the end of their life in comfort. Pastor Seung Do Baek, who has conducted numerous funerals there, poignantly observed, "The people who you have around you at the time of death is family."

Baek's words ring true with Korean culture’s family mentality. Every individual belongs to a family or clan, and is protected within them. Dying alone means being abandoned from all of such circles. This may cast an emotional shadow making isolated seniors feel socially abandoned and an ultimate failure in life.

But by balancing traditional values with American ways of living, the Korean immigrant community is striving to find solutions.

Problem for Entire U.S. Boomer Generation

Lone deaths are not only an Asian American issue, but one confronting the entire American society. The boomer generation is increasingly likely to die alone, according to a study released in April by researchers at Bowling Green State University's National Center for Family and Marriage Research.

Sociologists I-Fen Lin and Susan Brown showed that one-third of Americans ages 45-63 are unmarried, a 50 percent increase since 1980. Brown said she expects a jump in the number of Americans dying alone.

Lin commented, “Families and spouses used to take care of seniors, but baby boomers are increasingly likely to die alone.” She added, “policymakers need to look ahead 10 to 20 years and start preparing for lone deaths.”

Jongwon Lee wrote this article as part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.

--Jongwon Lee

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