Now 38, and never been married, Jeon is still the sole caregiver of her mother, who requires assistance with her activities.
“When she first had a stroke, she was no different from a 6- or 7-year-old,” Jeon said.
“She was hospitalized for a year, and then had to visit a care facility on a regular basis for about three years. My 20s were spent entirely on caring for my mom. When her condition improved, I told her that I was moving out. She was very upset about it, but I felt like I could not live that life anymore.”
Jeon is one of many single Korean daughters -- including those who have never been married and those who have been divorced -- who are estimated to be disproportionately burdened with caring for their aging parents, compared to adult sons.
According to research by Womenlink, a women’s rights nongovernmental organization, about 20 percent of women who are in their late 40s and older are thought to be caring for their elderly parents in South Korea's increasingly aging society.
The research claims that middle-aged, single women who have never been married are much more likely to end up with the responsibility than adult men and women who are married.
As they don’t have their own family to take care of and day-to-day care of parents is often expected of daughters, the women are often left with the unpaid care responsibility with little or no support from their married siblings, the study added.
“(When my mother fell ill), my younger sister was a student. My brother had a wife and a child, but because I had never been married, I had more time after work,” said Bae Hye-yeong, 49, who has been the main caregiver for her ailing mother for the past 15 years.
“What I find unfair is that I was very strongly pressured by my mother to quit my job, so that I could care for her full-time, while she never asked my brother to do the same. She kept on saying, ‘Your father is still working and he brings money to the house, so just stay home and care for me.’”
The tendency for women -- or single adult children -- to bear the burden of unpaid caregiving for their aging parents is not unique to Korea.
According to a report by Seok Jae-eun, a professor in welfare policy for the elderly at Hallym University, about 26 percent of elderly citizens in Japan were living with their adult, unmarried children, as of 2012.
In the US, there is a term for this issue -- “daughter care,” meaning, aging parents are much more reliant on their daughters for in-home, and often free, care, while sons are almost entirely free from such responsibilities.
According to a report published in the medical journal JAMA Neurology last year, women in the US provide “nearly two-thirds of all elder care,” and daughters are 28 percent more likely to care for a parent than sons.
“The best long-term care insurance in our country (the US) is a conscientious daughter,” the report said.
Jeon said she felt her mother has been treating her as exactly that -- her care insurance.
“I very often wonder about this. I wonder if I were a son, would my mother have treated me this way -- as her de facto insurance,” she said.
“She’s been taking what I’ve been doing for her for granted. She thinks that as a daughter, it is simply my responsibility to care for her when she’s ill, and if it’s necessary, I should just sacrifice my time and other life opportunities for her. She never really thanked me for it.
“I think she at least wouldn’t have demanded I live with her all the time if I were a man,” she continued. “Things have changed, but men are still never really expected to provide such in-home, unpaid care for their parents (in Korea).”
Jeon said her mother’s siblings also took her unpaid caregiving for granted. “They never intervened and never offered any help -- both financially and emotionally,” she said. “They would simply say, ‘Why does your mother need to hire help? She has you -- she has her daughter.”
Jeong Ju-hyeon, a 61-year-old unmarried woman, also said she has never been paid for the care work she provided for her elderly parents.
“Other family members just get away from the responsibility by saying ‘thank you,’” she said. “They just tell me, ‘thank you,’ ‘you’ve been doing an amazing job,’ and ‘this is why everyone should have daughters.’”
Last year, South Korea’s number of senior citizens -- those aged 65 or older -- accounted for 13.8 percent of the population. It is projected that elderly Koreans will make up 26.1 percent of the country’s population by 2032 and 41 percent by 2060.
While the population of senior citizens is increasing dramatically, statistics show that almost half of all aging Koreans live in relative poverty. According to the World Economic Forum, South Korea’s tax and public transfer system, such as social retirement plans and unemployment benefits, fail to substantially reduce the inequality.
This means many elderly Koreans often have no choice but to rely on their grown children financially and physically -- especially when they become ill.
Some of the women who participated in Womenlink’s research said they were worried about their own future -- as a single, elderly woman without any children and post-retirement savings. Due to their unpaid care work for their parents, they said they have less or no time to engage in paid work.
“I couldn’t work because I had to care for my mother full time, and spent much of my savings as well. None of my siblings helped out,” said Jin Myeong-ju, a 48-year-old unmarried woman who has been caring for her parent for the past five years, without pay.
“So I asked my siblings if I could take the key money deposit -- some 100 million won ($88,342) -- that had been paid by my mother for the apartment where she and I have been living together, when she passes away,” she said.
“But my siblings rejected idea, saying that caring for my mother was my own choice. They also said I basically had been given free housing for the past five years since I never had to pay rent to my mother. I actually think it’s very possible that I would end up dying alone, and no one would find my body until some weeks later.”
For Shim Hee-yeong, a 54-year-old unmarried woman, housing was also a key issue. “For unmarried women (of my age), it’s hard to find affordable housing. I had no choice but to live with my parents,” she said.
“When they became sick, it ‘naturally’ became my responsibility to care for them because I had been relying on them and living with them.”
Experts say there should be an open discussion about care work and gender norms in Korea. “What seems necessary is the establishment of a universal elder care,” said professor Seok. “Everyone should be able to access care regardless of their income status and how many children they have.”
“Child care used to be considered a women’s job only, and now it’s slowly changing,” said Jin Myung-ju, a 48-year-old woman who has been caring for her aging parents without her brother’s support. “I think the same discussion should take place about elder care -- it should not just be women’s job. Sons should take part of it, too.”
Choi Won-jin, an activist and researcher at Womenlink, said elder care should be jointly provided by the state, civil society and citizens. ”And to make this happen, we need participation by sons and brothers,” she said.
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)