Lonely deaths have made headlines anew after veteran actress, Lee Mi-ji, 57, was found dead Saturday, two weeks after she died alone in her single-room Seoul apartment, raising public concern about the deepening social phenomenon of this rapidly aging society.
The celebrity's lonely death, dubbed "kodokushi" in Japanese ― as it was first used in TV news in 2011 in Japan ― implies that it is no more the problem of elderly people living alone, isolated from family and friends.
Unfortunately, however, the government has no legal definition or policy that applies to such people and the data is still largely sketchy. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, people who died alone with no family or friends last year numbered 1,232, a 77.8 percent increase over the past five years.
This means there could be more people who died alone even if they had family members or friends like the late actress. In sharp contrast, in Japan there were more than 40,000 lonely deaths last year.
South Korea is one of the most rapidly aging countries, with nearly 6.5 million people over 65 accounting for 13.2 percent of the population as of the end of 2015. There also has been a drastic increase in the number of one-person households, surpassing 5 million in 2015. In this situation, it is not difficult to presume that lonely deaths will soar as far as the government has not introduced any positive policies, taking a lesson from Japan.
Elderly people who live alone are likely to lack social contact with family and neighbors, so are more likely to die alone and remain undiscovered for a long time, like the actress.
On the occasion of the actress' lonely death, the government has to work out comprehensive plans to cope with the worrisome social phenomenon ― in close cooperation with social security and welfare organizations ― so that residents and neighbors can watch over elderly citizens who live by themselves to help prevent unattended deaths.