Photo: Although “lone deaths” are rising among Korean elders in the U.S., many like Yang Nyeo Min, shown in the photo on her birthday, still are surrounded by family. (Korea Daily}
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ATLANTA—As most of Atlanta was celebrating the holiday week last December 22, Chun Cha Frank, 68, was found dead in her home. Discovered face down in her bathtub, she died two or three days before, according to local authorities. The Atlanta police did not suspect foul play was involved, but Frank had lived isolated from friends or family--and her body stayed at the Fulton County Coroner's Office for the next two months.
The widow of a U.S Air Force veteran, Frank had no known family or friends and authorities could find no contact information for anyone who might have known how to reach them. A phone number with South Korean regional code was found, but it was disconnected.
Korea's 500-Year Eldercare Tradition
The Korean tradition of eldercare caring was codified 500 years ago, when the Chosun Dynasty set a national policy of families taking care of their seniors. When a man is known as “Hyo-Ja,” or a good son, the government acknowledged him with presents and statues. Korean families were born together, lived together and died together.
The first generation of Korean American immigrants largely carried on the tradition. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 76.4 percent of Korean American seniors age 65 or older live with their families. Until only a few years ago the concept of “Hyo” prevented most tragedies, such as the growing number of lone deaths in the Korean American community.
An Unthinkable End
Frank was one of the rising number of Korean seniors in the United States who live and often die alone here—an almost unthinkable end to one’s life in Korea’s family-focused culture. Among the 1.7 million Korean Americans counted in the 2010 U.S. Census, 8.7 percent were 65-plus, or nearly 150,000 elders. Of those seniors, one in five (28,274) lived on their own.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry reports that 70-80 Korean nationals die every year in the United States (excluding deaths from crimes or accidents). But because most families arranging a funeral for a loved one do not report the death to the ministry, many suppose that those the agency learns about may have die in isolation.
Joo Young Beon, a Korean council, confirmed, “Many of the seniors about whom the Korean Embassy gets notified died alone and no family could be found.”
Two-Month Family Search
Local Korean American media and community organizations tried to find any clues about her social life and contacts, to no avail. The Korean American Association of Greater Atlanta (KAAGA) stepped forward to fund Frank’s funeral, but it had no legal claim for obtaining release of her body to lay her to rest.
A clue finally arrived—but not until February. Frank’s family in Korea contacted the Korean Consulate in Atlanta after reading an article about her in their local newspaper. But her family couldn’t afford the expensive plane ticket to the United States.
Frank's body was cremated with no funeral, and her ash was sent to her family in Korea, three months after her death.
The Frank case represents a growing trend and increasing concern in Atlanta’s Korean American community. KAAGA dealt with a similar situation only two years earlier.
In April 2010, KAAGA held a funeral services at its office for a 60-year-old woman who killed herself three days earlier. The women had waited tables at various Korean restaurants after her divorce. She had no family or a church she attended regularly.
A New Phenomenon
When she died, her colleagues raised some money, and KAAGA stepped forward to help.
Kuk Ja Lee, the owner of Lee’s Funeral Home, said, “In the 30 years of my business in this area, Korean people have always had families around when they died. Dying alone is really a new phenomenon, and a tragic one.”
Korean American seniors are facing new and distinct possibilities of such tragedies happening. Soon Hee Lee, the director of KAAGA’s Family Center program, said, “You just didn't hear about a senior dying completely alone in Korea.”
She added, “Being alone in a foreign land with no family beside you is an especially tragic way to end your life.”
As the English poet John Donne's famous line “live together, die alone” suggests, dying alone for most Americans may be considered unfortunate, but not a social problem. But coexistence, if not social harmony, is deeply rooted in the Korean mentality. An old saying in Korea goes, “Even death can be better met together.”
Defining “lone death” is a tricky. No broadly accepted academic term exists in English, but Koreans call it “godoksa” and the Japanese “kodokusi.” The South Korean Health Ministry defines godoksa as “dying alone and being found after a certain period.” Such sad endings are also called “disconnected death,” implying the person’s severance from all social circles.
“Asian families traditionally respect and take care of their elders,” noted Guk Ja Lee of Lee’s funeral home.” Lee added, “Having Asian seniors dying alone represents their families' abandonment and the society’s failure to protect them.”
Changing Ways of Life -- and Death
At age 90, Yang Nyeo Min of Lawrenceville, Ga., has 12 children and lives near five of them at her 11th son’s house. Four of her other children live within 20 miles.
Min watches Korean television every night after eating dinner with family members. One of her children always accompanies her on every hospital visit.
Her 12th son, Hyun Chol, said, “She went through all kinds of trouble raising us, so we take it as natural for us to take care of her together.”
Min’s family is typical of traditional Korean post-retirement family structure. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, about one in five of Georgia’s 54,000 Korean families provide care for at least one elder. That proportion is impressive, considering that Korean immigrants are a young group.
In Korea Daily's 2011 survey of 500 Korean American seniors about what they needed most, good health came first at 65 percent followed by a comfortable death (19 percent), happy family (8 percent) and money (5 percent). Although the survey revealed that health and family are the most desirable life elements for Korean seniors, that priority is shifting.
There is no reliable data on how many Korean seniors in the United States face a “lone death.” However, the Korean American community organizations say isolated deaths are increasing.
In March 2011, Soon Hee Lee, the Family Center director, got an anonymous call asking about the expenses of a funeral. The caller said he had "no family to take care of my funeral. I’d rather set myself on fire.”
Lee doesn't believe the man followed through, but expressed shock, saying, “This is just unimaginable in the Korean mindset.”
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.