Unattended deaths most common in middle age

By Claire Lee
  • Published : Aug 3, 2016 - 16:41
  • Updated : Aug 3, 2016 - 17:10
Elderly Koreans -- those aged 70 or older -- only accounted for 21 percent of all reported unattended deaths in Korea last year, defying general perception that it is mostly the elderly left alone in life and death.

According to data released by the National Assembly’s Health and Welfare Committee, the number of reported unattended deaths increased from 719 in 2012 to 1,245 last year, and those who lived in Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province accounted for 53.1 percent of cases in 2015.

Among the unattended deaths, the largest proportion of them, 29.6 percent, were in their 50s, followed by those in their 60s (22.7 percent) and those in their 70s (21.4 percent). However, the report also found that those aged 49 or younger made up 17.8 percent of those who died without anyone by their side.
“The statistics show us that unnoticed death is not just a problem among the elderly,” the report said. “The numbers show us that those who have just retired from their jobs -- hence those in their 50s -- had the highest likelihood of dying alone without anyone knowing.”

South Korea considers as unattended deaths cases of those who take their own lives and whose bodies are found months or years later. From 2011 to 2013, 2.6 percent of bodies found were so decomposed that it was impossible to even identify their gender.

According to a 2014 report by the committee, which chronicled a total of 14 unattended deaths, many of the dead were socially isolated, financially unstable and did not have a support network.

One of them, a 59-year-old woman found dead in 2013, had suffered two unhappy marriages before becoming a homeless person living at Daejeon train station. Her first husband had been physically abusive and addicted to gambling, while her second husband was an alcoholic. After her second divorce, she seriously injured her spine while working in a ginseng field. She was homeless until she managed to receive a state allowance that enabled her to stay in a motel room. But she took her life in the very room by drinking pesticides a few months later. She had no family member to arrange a funeral for her, even after her body was found. 

“She would often say she wished she at least had children,” the owner of the motel told researchers.

Also in 2013, a 65-year-old homeless man was found dead alone at a shelter. He had worked as a school teacher before starting his own business, which ended in bankruptcy and financial disaster. He had been married twice, with his second wife dying of cancer. Although he had three children with his first wife, he was not in touch with them. 

Researchers wrote that those suffering from chronic illness or disability and those who have experienced family separation, divorce or longtime unemployment are especially vulnerable to unattended deaths. They also said that there should be legislation related to the personal belongings and assets of those who die with no family or legal guardian. The report also highlighted that bodies of individuals who died alone at hospitals, did not have a legal guardian and had overdue hospital bills were taken to other institutions, presumably for research purposes.

By Claire Lee(