Older South Koreans turn to dating apps to ease loneliness


JS Oh has struggled with loneliness since her divorce and early retirement as a teacher in Seoul. But her isolation was relieved after the 59-year-old met a man four years her senior through Couple.net, a South Korean dating app that helps adult children find partners for their parents.

“When my daughter bought the dating app coupon for me, I was so excited to meet someone around my age. I met him twice for lunch and it went well – we talked about various things, it helped relieve my loneliness, ”said Oh, who lives alone with her two dogs.

Older South Koreans have paid a heavy price for the country’s skyrocketing economic growth and social upheaval of recent decades, with the unraveling of traditional family structures exacerbated by inadequate government support.

South Korea has long experienced the highest poverty and senior suicide rates in the developed world, according to OECD figures. But a combination of public programs, civil society initiatives, and growing public awareness – reflected in the determination of young Koreans to help their parents enjoy a new life – has raised hopes for a better future for the rapidly aging society.

“Although I live with my adult children, I often feel lonely and want to meet someone for a long time,” said JW Kim, a 56-year-old office worker.

Kim’s son bought her a coupon for the Couple.net service with his first salary after landing a job at a public company. She has since had dates with two men.

“The first man was a bit short and the other tended to bluff. They weren’t my type, but it was still fun meeting them, ”Kim said. “The thought of dating someone again makes my heart beat faster. You forget about the loneliness, you wait for a date and you feel happy, even for a short time.

Lee Woong-jin, president of dating app provider Sunoo, which operates Couple.net, said, “We get a lot of inquiries from people in big cities like Seoul and Busan and even in the United States, while families become nuclear and many old people. to live alone. We even have a 93-year-old male client looking for a date.

South Korea’s birth rate fell to just 0.84 babies per woman, and last year its population declined for the first time. The number of South Koreans over 65 will increase from 8.53 million in 2021 to 17.22 million in 2040, and could represent 43.9% of the population by 2050, according to a report by Statistics Korea, a public body.

Experts said rapid urbanization and extreme competition for school and university places and well-paying jobs meant that many older South Koreans had been virtually abandoned by their adult children who had to focus on their own children and their career.

“The shift from extended families to one-person nuclear households is happening too quickly,” said Kim Jin-soo, professor of social protection at Yonsei University. “People do not have the time physically and psychologically to prepare for change, and the changes are made worse by longer lifespans and growing inequalities. “

The challenges are particularly severe for poor and elderly South Koreans: 43.4% of older people lived in poverty in 2018, the highest rate in the OECD.

Many are forced to retire in their fifties and receive only the state’s basic monthly pension of 300,000 won ($ 256). They are expected to bear a large portion of their own health costs.

President Moon Jae-in’s administration has raised the state’s basic pension by 200,000 won, while presidential candidates ahead of next year’s election have pledged to launch sweeping policies to combat worsening inequalities.

But academics and volunteers told the Financial Times that focusing solely on economic issues would not be enough to tackle the loneliness that plagues the lives of the poor and well-off.

“Many elderly people commit suicide because of financial problems, for example due to illness, because they still have to pay a large part of the medical bills themselves,” said Kim Jin-soo. “But another big reason is the feeling of loneliness.”

Shin Kwang-young, professor of sociology at Chung-Ang University, said, “As the country has developed economically, the sense of family unity weakens, making the elderly lonely and isolated and weakening. their will to live. The traditional Confucian model based on filial duty unfolded in a single generation.

The government and civil society groups have responded with a range of initiatives, including state-funded communal activities, regular phone calls to older people, and better access to mental health services.

Access to pesticides has also been restricted, as part of a strategy to raise practical barriers to suicide.

“We are seeing a steadily declining trend – the suicide rate for the 70-year-old was 62.5 per 100,000 in 2015, but it has now dropped to 38.8,” said Song Dae-gyu of the Korean Suicide Prevention Foundation.

Kwon Dae-young runs Marcoroho, a social enterprise in the rural southeastern province of Gyeongsang, which trains and employs elderly women to produce traditional crafts. The project had started as a way to solve their financial problems, he said, but has since focused on reducing their sense of isolation.

“We found that grandmothers who had spent their lives as housewives struggled to establish social communities after the death of their spouse and were much more susceptible to alienation and depression than older men. “Kwon said.

“We don’t just give them something to do – they get employee status, titles, a sense of belonging, they make a profit and communicate with their customers.”

For Lee of Sunoo, the “explosive” demand for the Couple.net app illustrates both the scale of the loneliness problem and the determination of many young South Koreans to help solve it.

“In the past, it was usually parents who requested dating services for their adult children,” he said. “Now the trend has turned.”

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