Eldercide on the Rise?

Left uncared for, will more elders turn to suicide? 

It makes sense the suicide rate of older people is higher than the rest of the population. In the U.S., people over 65 account for 12 percent of the population but about 20 percent of the suicides.Declining health, depression, loneliness, and financial difficulties are some of the obvious reasons.Seems understandable, but a February 18th article in The New York Times, “As Families Change, Korea’s Elderly Are Turning to Suicide,” is alarming and has implications for seniors in the U.S. and other parts of the world.

In South Korea the number of people 65 and over committing suicide has recently quadrupled making the country’s rate of such deaths the highest in the developed world. And this grim situation is happening at a time when the South Korean economy is booming.


For centuries, Korean families have functioned according to the “Confucian social compact” whereby, among other things, aging parents lived with their eldest son’s family and if they didn’t have a son, they adopted one from a relative.

Because of this tradition, the South Korean government has been reticent about providing pensions or welfare to its older citizens based on the notion they will be cared for by their families.

In South Korea, the law actually denies welfare to people whose children are deemed capable of supporting them.

As the South Korean economy grows, as people move from rural areas to cities, and as the western lifestyle takes hold more and more younger Koreans are reluctant to take on the burden of caring for their parents.

In turn, more and more parents are committing suicide.Mostly ignored, this problem came to light in a dramatic fashion when a 78-year-old widow staged her death by drinking pesticide in front of the city hall where she lived after government officials stopped her welfare checks.

In my opinion, in highly competitive societies, the Ayn Rand “virtue of selfishness” concept prevales among too many people who are intensely focused on getting ahead.  Helping others becomes secondary, even when it’s our parents.

The competitive effect in South Korea has been more profound than the U.S. because we have Social Security and Medicare. Our laws don’t assume the children of aging parents will provide them with all the care they need.

But the political battle over the deficit and the explosive growth of our senior population is putting tremendous strains on our ability to care for our aging citizens.  Professional caregivers are harder to come by and in many communities we are even experiencing a shortage of doctors and nurses.

As the number of people with serious aliments like Alzheimer’s rises, the cost of caring for them rises as well. This is to say nothing about the relentless drumbeat of right-wing Republicans to cut what they call “entitlements.”

If Social Security and Medicare are cut and if nothing is done to address the shortages and inflation in healthcare, the pressures on older people will increase–the screws will get tighter and tighter.

We too will see an alarming growth in eldercide.

–David Bunnell 

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