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Recent data suggests South Korea is now the fastest-aging country on earth. By some estimates, nearly 40 percent of Koreans will be 65 years old or older, by midcentury. In a sense, the country is suffering from its own rapid development, which sent life expectancy soaring and birth rates plummeting. From Seoul, NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on some novel ways the country is preparing for old age, and for the epidemic of dementia expected to come with it.
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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Senior citizens and their families stand in a circle and sing Korean folks songs. Artworks made by the seniors decorate this clean and sunny community center. A sign on the wall identifies it as the Gangseo Center for Dementia. Gangseo is one of 25 urban districts in Seoul and since 2006, the city has put a dementia center in each of them.
This center helps to lighten Jeon Om-ryul's burden. Her husband was diagnosed with dementia, and she's been bringing him here to the center every week, for the past two years.
JEON OM-RYUL: (Through translator) For 12 years, I raised my granddaughter, until my husband got sick. Now I take care of him. I've never had the energy to think of myself. Whenever I think of what will happen to me, all I can do is cry. I wonder who will take care of me. I fear that only the government can.
KUHN: Last year, Korea passed a dementia-management law establishing the centers, and mandating that citizens over 65 be checked for dementia symptoms. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The dementia-management law was passed in 2011.] Social worker Kim Dong-hun says that the most fulfilling part of his job at the center is helping the patients to imbue their activities with purpose and meaning. But he says the social stigma associated with dementia, makes it hard to reach out to the patients.
KIM DONG-HUN: (Through translator) We publicize our programs intensively, but one of the biggest challenges we face is that many people still have not changed their attitude towards dementia. Even if you go to their house to find them, they don't want to come out.
KUHN: Sung Mi-ra, secretary-general of the Seoul Metropolitan Center for Dementia, estimates that South Korea currently has about 530,000 dementia patients, out of a total population of 50 million. She estimates that there will be a million patients by 2025. She says that dementia costs South Korea the equivalent of $8 billion a year in hospital fees and lost income, and that figure will double every decade. Sung says that South Koreans need to start seeing dementia as a disease.
SUNG MI-RA: (Through translator) In the past, whenever someone got dementia, it was treated as a natural occurrence. If you get old, you lose your mind, went a common saying. Nobody treated this condition because people believed that's just the way it is.
KUHN: Compared to other developed countries, very few elderly South Koreans live in nursing homes. Confucian attitudes about filial piety are still prevalent here; and while they're less common now, many families still have three or more generations living in one home. Sung says South Korea's approach to aging assumes that family members - not the government - will provide most of the care to the elderly.
SUNG: (Through translator) Institutionalizing a demented parent is seen as unfilial. For this reason, dementia patients should be living at home with their families. So what's important is that the community creates an environment where this is possible. This is why centers like ours are being established all around the country.
KUHN: Another hallmark of South Korea's approach is to train young people to empathize with the elderly, and prepare for their own senescence.
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KUHN: Some students at a center for the elderly in suburban Seoul find the training rather fun. High school student Kim Dong-hyun finds out what it's like to be hoisted from his bed into a chair, using a winch and sling. His giggling classmates are wearing sandbags, to weigh down their limbs; back braces, which force them to stoop; and glasses, which impair their vision. Kim says he's still mulling over the implications of his training.
KIM DONG-HYUN: (Through translator) I am worried about the aging of our society. We need to get ready. I'm not sure what I, personally, can do to get ready; have a lot of children to take care of me in my old age, I guess.
KUHN: The class instructor says the training inspires some students to reconsider how they treat their elders. And it makes some others simply dread the coming of old age.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.
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