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[Editorial] Policies for older people

Election pledges such as state support for caregiving costs touch off populism concerns

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 26, 2023 - 05:30

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Both the ruling and main opposition parties are now rushing to announce new election pledges targeting the elderly in a bid to win more seats in the forthcoming general election in April next year.

In rapidly aging South Korea, it is no surprise that politicians are catering to this important voter group. But the question is whether generous -- or populist in the eyes of critics -- election pledges can be implemented without securing enough funds.

Last week, both President Yoon Suk Yeol and Democratic Party of Korea leader Lee Jae-myung met separately with older people. During a visit to a house in Seoul where a woman in her 80s lives alone, Yoon reiterated the government’s continued push for those in need, and Health Minister Cho Kyu-hong, who was also present, said the country created 147,000 new jobs for seniors and increased welfare payments for the first time in six years.

Meanwhile, Lee paid a visit to a senior center in Seoul where he pledged to introduce free lunches on weekdays at the centers. Lee’s election promise of free lunches, if it ever gets implemented, requires a large amount of money to cover around 70,000 senior centers across the nation. Neither Lee nor the main opposition Democratic Party, however, have offered any specific funding plan yet.

One high-profile election pledge for the elderly involves care worker expenses. On Thursday, the government announced a plan to lessen the financial burdens of patients and their family members to hire care workers. Under the plan, the government will kick off a pilot program to pay part of caregiver bills for those at nursing homes in July of next year. The support will be expanded throughout the country from 2027.

The government said it would also expand the program that integrates hospital medical treatment with caregiving services. This will allow those in serious conditions at hospitals to receive caregiver services from nurses. The government aims to increase the number of integrated program users from the current 2.3 million to 4 million by 2027, leading to a reduction in total caregiving expenses of 10.7 trillion won ($8.25 billion) between 2024 and 2027.

Even without considering the elderly voters’ importance in elections, the growing cost of caregiving expenses is a serious issue. Korea is set to become a superaged society in 2025, when the proportion of those aged 65 and older hit 20 percent of the population, a demographic shift that is expected to increase caregiving costs. One university study estimates the total cost of the country’s caregiving services in 2022 at over 10 trillion won, and the cost has been rising 6.3 percent on average in the past five years.

As older patients often need long-term caregiver services, the cost goes up beyond the level that family members can afford in many cases. Family squabbles erupt over who will stay with patients at hospitals or how to pay for caregivers, which ranges between 600,000 won and 3.65 million won per month. Data shows that the average period in which patients stay at nursing homes is over five months, and there are many instances that last for one year or longer. This is why some call the situation a “caregiving hell.”

Against this backdrop, it is a step forward for the government to draw up a policy to share the caregiving cost with patients and their families. The Democratic Party has also put boosting caregiving support at the top of its election pledge list. Despite the hopeful talk, the government has no clear plan to secure the additional budget funds needed for caregiving support. Without a solid funding plan, any election pledges for the elderly will end up as just empty, populist promises.