As readers of this blog will know, South Korea is a rapidly ageing country. By the year 2026 (less than ten years from now) 20 per cent of the population will be over the age of 65 due to increasing lifespans and very low fertility rates. Indeed, unless things change, the lack of South Korean babies means that the country’s population will be precisely zero by the year 2750. However, the options for increasing the Korean birthrate are limited in number, leading some to hold out hope that Korean reunification will change the country’s bleak demographic future. At the other end of the lifecycle, the conditions facing Korean retirees (of which there will be many more in the coming decades) are not great: low incomes and the growing phenomenon of dying alone.
One aspect of retiring that two architects have tried to improve for elderly Koreans is housing. Jang Yoon-gyoo and Shin Chang-hoon asked: what kind of space would be best for the elderly in Korea? Their answer a care facility called “Injain Care Center” in Bucheon, Gyeonggi (a satellite city of Seoul). The centre is on the corner of a park and stands out due to its five-story high, European style. The building is jagged with gabled roofs on top in order to create a “home-like interior for the elderly”. The Injain Care Center is one of the few facilities in Korea that has adopted the “Unit Care system” – rooms are built into “units” that resemble a house with five bedrooms, common bathroom and a common living room. The unit is the responsibility of one care taker. Instead of looking like a prison or hospital with all of the rooms opening onto a long corridor, the unit design mimics a flat or house. According to Jang it was crucial to:
“ … design the interior like an ordinary home while coming up with a polished exterior so the elderly feel like they just moved homes to a fancier place.”
The director of the centre, Cho Dong-jae, explains that the unit-design (which is popular in Japan) encourages community among the elderly residents:
“At other care centers that are not as spacious as ours, the elderly eat, sleep and watch TV in their tiny cubicle room … They hardly come out from their rooms. But here, they live like they are in their ordinary homes, just with more friends.”
The 180 bed Injain Care Center opened in November 2015, was full in May 2016, and now has a waiting list of 200. This waiting list is not surprising since the architects aimed at providing “a center where they can live with dignity”; a home rather than a prison-like facility where retirees are locked away. The design includes the flat-like communal living described above, as well as a better environment for those who have difficulty moving or are wheelchair bound. There are doors without thresholds, bathrooms with safety bars, an outdoor garden to grow vegetable, and a sauna and foot bath equipment in a physical therapy room. Aside from the physical environment, the philosophy of the center’s caregivers also seems to be attractive. According to director Cho:
“ … what we prioritize and try to focus on is providing heartwarming services and care. The way caregivers look at the elderly and the way they talk to them – that whole attitude is the most important of any of the programs in the center.”
Not only is the center spacious and encourages communal living, it is also cheap according to Cho:
“The cheapest facility at the moment is priced around 500,000 won [USD 430] per month to share a four-person bedroom. For more luxury facilities operated by a conglomerate, it can cost up to 7 million won [a month] per person.”
Perhaps the care facility at Bucheon is one that others in Korea and around the world should be looking to emulate as the elderly population around the world balloons in the years to come.