This report will introduce various schemes and projects that Korean regional and local governments have implemented to prevent lonely deaths particularly among older persons. These include a system installed in single-occupancy houses that detects unusual TV viewing patterns and activates a call or visit to monitor the safety of the occupants; companion robots that assists older people living alone; and an AI phone system that monitors the safety of the middle-aged and older people living alone.
Efforts of Local Governments to Prevent Lonely Deaths
According to the 2020 Survey of Living Conditions and Welfare Needs of Korean Older Persons, the number of households occupied by older persons (living alone + married couples) increased from 66.8 per cent in 2008 to 78.2 per cent in 2020. Conversely, the number of households living with children decreased from 27.6 per cent in 2008 to 20.1 per cent in 2020, indicating that the number of older person households in Korea that include adult children is continuously shrinking. As the growth of the nuclear family accelerates, the social problem of loneliness is emerging. According to the Act on the Prevention and Management of Lonely Deaths, which came into effect in April 2021, lonely death is defined as a death in which a person living alone, cut off from his family and relatives, dies alone, due to suicide or disease, and the body is found after a certain period of time has elapsed.
Since the 2000s, as the severity of both older persons' poverty and the suicide rate began to rise, lonely death began to attract attention as one of the new social issues. As the number of households where older persons live alone continues to increase, measures to relieve the loneliness of older persons living alone have been introduced at the level of national and local government.
There are various studies that show that the older you get, the fewer people you can talk to, and the longer you spend time alone, the more negative the impact on your health. The health problems of older persons who live alone can lead to depression and suicide. The efforts of national and local governments to prevent loneliness can be said to be the first step toward resolving lonely deaths. The Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC) in the United States and the Lonely Death Zero Movement in Japan have been in operation to prevent lonely deaths.
* Naturally Occurring Retirement Community: A residential area where the majority of local residents are over the age of 65 firstly introduced in 1980s. Anyone 65 years of age or older can become a member regardless of religion or race, and can receive various services such as home care, free health checkups and health care at their residence without using long-term care facilities in the suburbs.
* Lonely Death Zero Movement: From 2007, local government selects high-risk groups, that is, people without a spouse, neighbors, friends or family, and operates a community communication space for them, and provides various services such as installing a lonely death prevention counseling line.
Although official statistics on lonely deaths do not exist civic groups and local governments estimate that in 2020, 2,880 persons died without any connection (according to Article 12 of the Act on Funeral Services, such death is defined as that of a person with no relatives or unknown affiliations). This is an increase of 57 per cent from 1,833 in 2016. Although it is not possible to report the exact number, it is likely that lonely deaths will continue to increase, based on the increase in the number of single-person households occupied by older persons. In order to prevent lonely deaths, which are becoming an increasingly serious social problem, the Korean local governments have come up with the following schemes applying IT and AI technologies.
1. 100 Care Service in Paju-si
In Papyeong-myeon (Myeon refers to a district unit a population size between 2,000 and 25,000), Paju-si (located in the north of Seoul) (si refers to a district unit a population size at least 50,000), the 100 Care Service started in November 2021 (100 means that this service provides 100% care for older persons to live happily to the age of 100). In Papyeong-myeon, there were 446 single-person households occupied by older persons aged 65 and above, of which 63 were e low-income households, making it one of the smallest villages in Paju-si and a high-risk village for population extinction due to ageing. The average age of Papyeong-meyeon is 54, which is higher than the national average of 43.
Based on this ageing issue, Papyeong-meyeon promoted 100 Care Service. The 100 Care Service provides a device installed on a television. This service analyzes the signal sent by a rating survey device attached to the television in single-persons households, and detects any unusual viewing patterns. If the older person does not turn on the TV at a set time, or the channel is not changed for more than 2 hours, a danger signal is displayed on the central monitoring system. The care service will first call to check the safety of the older person, and if there is no answer, a social worker will visit in person. In addition, if the rate of rebroadcasting of the programs that an older person usually watches increases, the public health center will suspect dementia, and arrange a visit and consultation.
Paju-si Papyeong-myeon 100 Care Service Monitoring (Source: Gyeonggi Happy Village Management Office)
2. Companion Robots
Companion robots have already been commercialized in some countries for the purpose of preventing loneliness. In Korea, companion robots can be purchased individually, but several local governments are providing free companion robots to older persons living alone. In Yeongdeok-gun, in collaboration with the Korea Telecom (KT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) companion robots were distributed to 100 single-older person households by the end of 2021. This scheme was initiated to strengthen non-face-to-face care services, since care services for the socially disadvantaged had become difficult due to the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic. The robot is equipped with functions such as talking with older persons, notifying the time of medication, checking older persons’ safety through video calls by social workers, and reporting emergencies. Some districts such as Mapo-gu and Jongno-gu in Seoul also provide companion robots with similar functions to older persons living on their own, to prevent loneliness and dementia.
Mapo-gu Companion Robot 'Mapo-Dongi' (Source: Mapo-gu Office, Seoul)
3. AI Life Management Service in Seoul
The Seoul Metropolitan Government plans to implement the AI Life Management Service pilot project from April 2022. This project is being promoted to prevent the social isolation of middle-aged single-person households (in their 50 and 60s), who are at high risk of dying of loneliness. According to the rate of persons died without any connection, about 40% are in their 40s and 50s. Therefore, the problem of social isolation among middle aged (preliminary older persons) is also drawing attention along with the lonely deaths of older persons. To start with, from April, the Seoul Metropolitan Government will select about 300 single-person households in their 50s and 60s from 5 or 6 districts and implement a pilot project. If this goes well, it plans to expand the target of support to 30,000 single-person households in Seoul. According to the Seoul Metropolitan Government, this service will involve an AI phone call made once or twice a week to check the safety of single-person households registered for this project. The call checks if the person is eating and sleeping well and managing daily life well, from nutrition and going-out to exercising. AI becomes a companion in short conversations and helps the emotional stability of the people living alone who are vulnerable to loneliness. In addition, when signs of crisis are detected through dialogue monitoring, district officials will check the status of single-person households and provide support to overcome and prevent loneliness.
4. Other projects
In addition to the above three schemes and projects, the Korean government and local governments are carrying out various other similar ones to prevent loneliness. In Dong-gu, Incheon, in 2021, the Smart Care Plug Project was implemented as a pilot project for 35 older persons living alone. This project installs smart care plugs in single-person households at risk of lonely deaths, and connects social workers one-to-one to notify risk by text message if there is no change in household electricity consumption or illumination over a certain period. Siheung-si has signed an agreement with the H.Y. Eungye Branch, a delivery store, in terms of which, since 2021, delivery men visit the homes of middle-aged male single-person households three times a week to deliver beverages and check if they are fine. With the recent increase in single-person households and reclusive loners, this project is intended to establish a tight safety network that includes checking older persons safety through regular delivery, and early detection of risk factors for loneliness among the middle-aged with weak social networks.
Siheung-si Beverage Delivery Service (Source: Siheung City Hall)