September 10, 2010

KOREA: Serving others key to meaningful aging

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SEOUL, Korea / The Korea Times / September 10, 2010

Hesung Chun, founder and chairwoman of the East Rock Institute (ERI), has released a new book “Meaningful Aging” (JoongAng Books). Courtesy of Awesome Communication


By Chung Ah-young

Aging may not be a pleasant thing for anyone but it’s inevitable. As Korean society is getting grayer, growing old is becoming a contentious issue.


Living longer seems to be a blessing but it’s only feasible when we live a decent life. So what is a decent life in an aging society?

Hesung Chun, 81, founder and chairwoman of the East Rock Institute (ERI) in New Haven, is one of the busiest residents at the Whitney Center, a retirement community in the United States.

Living in the U.S. for 62 years, Chun has compiled her experiences and inspirational stories from the center into a book, “Meaningful Aging” (JoongAng Books).

The work introduces her fellow residents who are actively engaged in volunteer work and community services at the resident-driven non-profit organization. The center has served seniors since 1979 under the guidance of a local volunteer board of directors charged with fulfillment of the mission.

Chun moved to the center that takes care of all kinds of its residents’ needs from food to health, education and recreation, three years ago.

“It actually involved much advanced planning. In 1989 I reserved a place and moved in 2007. But the whole story is better than I expected,” Chun said in an interview with The Korea Times.

Seventy-five percent of the community is somehow related to Yale University — either as former faculty or their parents and relatives. “It’s a highly educated community but what’s most impressive is that they continue to serve others. They are very community-minded and unlike the concept of a retirement community, this is not just a place for people who come to retire. They seem to be rejuvenated. It’s a powerhouse as a community,” she said.

She believes that the spirit and philosophy of the center where emotional, social, and cultural programs are in place, along with health care and wellness programs, can help Korean retirement communities.

The reason she wrote the book was to inspire people to learn from one another. “When I came to Korea, I visited my relatives living in a retirement community. It was regarded as the best in Seoul in terms of facilities. But when I saw the program, it was not resident-driven. The industry built this to earn money. I felt perhaps I could introduce the spirit and the method of the Whitney Center to Korea,” she said.

Korea is one of the fastest aging societies in the world with the second largest number of senior citizens. But it lacks systems and policies to support the elderly.

However, the scholar found that Korea has enormous potential to develop a good retirement community by using its traditional values and culture.

“Korea has Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist backgrounds. Longevity like Taoism is very much respected. And then Buddhist food and the Confucian filial piety are all related to food to nourish the elderly. I thought if we are very conscientious and do research, Korea will have something to export to Europe and the United States.”

She said that a combination of the two cultures — the Western system of self-reliance and independence and Korean cultural reverence toward the elderly — could create a better senior citizens’ community.

“I can convey how people age meaningfully and I want to keep on conveying this inspirational story. This book is a beginning not the end. It’s a way to stimulate people.”

In Korea, when the elderly go to a retirement community, families feel guilty. Also those who go to them feel pushed and reluctant. “But if you plan it in advance, you choose to go and become part of the community; it becomes much freer and you have the freedom as well as the convenience,” she said.

“I am trying to raise the consciousness of younger Koreans. There are some other ways of living, which are very rewarding and beneficial.”

Chun urged Korean young people to prepare in advance for life after retirement. “When you are prepared, it’s less fearful. Some people even write their funeral program before they die (at the center). That makes it easy for family members. They don’t have to worry about it,”she said.

Chun advised Korean retirement communities to let residents make their own programs as they want and input their own emotions. She also pointed out that in Korea, rich people have a place to go but there are no facilities for the middle-class.

“They are the people who could still contribute their wisdom and experience. They will have enough to give back to the community. So I would say Korean young men should think hard about how to enable educated and globally experienced people who are retired to give back to society in a comfortable way. Give them some kind of channel to input their energy and their wisdom,” she said.

For example, she spoke of a 93-year-old professor who organized a non-profit organization with three others with Ph.Ds from the Yale School of Environment. He is pushing a green movement to get the retirement communities to change their light bulbs to energy saving ones and urges them not to drive their cars. “Everyone has a cause there,” she said.

The center offers various cultural and educational programs such as a weekly lecture series, film screenings and discussion groups.

There is a balance class as the elderly fall a lot and the center brings in experts to show how to avoid this. They analyze the causes behind falling. “They do a lot of preventive work by bringing these experts and explaining. It’s informative. We learn a lot about what not to do. You have a tutor in residence about how to age. They are very willing to share their stories,” she said.

Chun will also teach this autumn to raise the consciousness about Korea and Korean culture.

The scholar has brought Korean culture through literature, arts and films such as “Chunhyangjeon” and “Daejanggeum” (Jewel in the Palace) to the center in the U.S.

Chun, a co-founder of ERI with her late husband Koh Kwang-lim, serves as its chairwoman. The institute is the oldest organization in the U.S. devoted to research on Korean culture, particularly for Korean-Americans. Previously known as the Korea Institute, the organization was established in 1955 to boost understanding between Korea and the U.S. through diverse academic and cultural activities and exchanges.

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