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(Yonhap Feature) Seniors find paradise in a corner of S. Korea
By Kim Hyun
Contributing writer
GWANGJU, April 21 (Yonhap) -- Bright spring sunshine filtered through the windows to light up the faces of elderly men and women as they moved and twirled in a ballroom dance hall. With arms waving, hips swinging and some missing a few beats, about 80 seniors were learning how to dance with partners to a groovy song.

   "Here you become healthier and make friends with men and ladies," Choi Dong-ryeol, 70, said with a beaming smile. Sporting a pink striped shirt, black pants and shiny dress shoes, Choi gestured toward his waist and said his pants size has dropped to 34 from 36 since he started taking classes at the Bitgoeul Senior Health Town in 2011. His diabetes is also gone. "This is a paradise."

For Choi Dong-ryeol (C), dancing isn't just for fun, it's also therapeutic. (Courtesy of Kim Hyun)

The government-run Bitgoeul, meaning the "town of light," Senior Health Town is Asia's largest recreational, learning and health care center for the elderly, a unique landmark of senior welfare in a nation saddled with gloomy statistics for its aging population. Nicknamed "Seniors' Paradise" with more than 90 free or low-cost programs, the complex has more than 5,000 daily attendees and over 54,400 registered members. It is a go-to spot for foreign welfare administrators seeking international exchange and a must-visit destination for politicians courting seniors' votes. Its popularity has spread into economic spinoffs, such as new housing and hospitals being built nearby.

   "When we started this project, we went overseas to get ideas. Now we receive visitors from abroad," said Lee Eun-hee, head of the Senior Health Town's planning and public relations team. "Countries like Japan, Sweden and Norway have advanced one-on-one care systems, but visitors from those countries are surprised to see that here, all the quality services are provided under one roof by a public institution."

   The seniors' complex opened in 2009 in the cheapest, most remote and least-developed mountainous corner of Gwangju, some 330 kilometers south of Seoul, but its location turned out to be ideal. Nestled in between mountains but not too far from downtown, the complex built on 101,590 square meters of land has now grown into a public silver town marked by amenities, tranquility and development potential.

   It was here that during the presidential race last winter, Park Geun-hye, the front-runner of the governing Saenuri Party at the time, made a nationally televised speech announcing her ambitious welfare pledges -- although many of them have now been retracted. All the major candidates and their spouses came to serve meals and wash dishes.

Nestled in between low mountains, the Bitgoeul Senior Health Town offers diverse services for the elderly under one roof (Courtesy of Bitgoeul Senior Health Town)

Its success story has drawn more than 14,700 foreign visitors -- mostly welfare officials, policymakers, tourists and those in the senior care business. Some 100 seniors from Wuhu, China's southeastern anhui Province, came to hold a friendly table tennis match with the seniors here earlier this month as part of their bilateral exchange program.

   Bjorn Bjornsen, commercial councilor of the Norwegian embassy in Seoul, who visited the seniors' center in 2011, said he was "much impressed" by its comprehensive and communal programming provided "at one place and at very favorable prices."

   While Norway focuses on providing individual home care so seniors can stay home where they are most happy and comfortable, he said by email that "it is indeed also favorable from a social point of view that the elderly people thus can meet old and new friends doing physical and mental activities together."

   From swimming and aquatic exercise, foreign languages, free physical therapy and medical checkups to continuing education and counseling, each of the center's programs seeks to meet the biological, psychological and social needs of the elderly, with roughly half of them in their 70s. Most of the paid programs cost 5,000 won (US$4.4) a month. Free shuttle buses operate across the city.

   The senior center was conceived by city administrators, but it is now its elderly members who build its communal culture. Rain or shine, Park Seong-geun, a retired serious crime police officer, and his two friends arrive before 9 a.m. to help in the kitchen. Lifting heavy cooking pots and stirring large loads of rice for some 1,500 people who eat lunch there every day, Park feels rejuvenated.

   "I used to go around catching robbers and murderers, but now I'm giving a hand to help others. It makes me feel good and comfortable," Park, 76, said. After the kitchen work, the three volunteers join other seniors in dance or computer classes and wrap up the day with a workout at the gym. "We'll be here as long as our health allows."

   Safety is a major concern. Every corner of the center is equipped with emergency devices, such as a 119 emergency vehicle on standby with two rescue officers and nurses; 225 emergency call bells installed in every toilet and in and outside the buildings; and a cardiopulmonary resuscitator, which once saved a man whose heartbeat had stopped in the spa.

   Still, it does happen from time to time that the seniors learn some people who do not show up for days have actually died.

   Lee, the health town's planning official, said there is one shared thought that connects all the seniors: life has been hard, and there isn't much time left. This sense of affinity neutralizes whatever human frictions occur.

   "There are jealousy and power struggles just like we had in school or wherever people gather," Lee said. "But what's good about being old is that we can relate to one another -- 'I've been through all, so have you.' Whatever bad things happen, this compassion wins."

   The booming Senior Health Town has brought about economic effects, too. As some members moved in to nearby apartments, neighborhood residential districts have seen real estate price hikes despite a nationwide slump, the health town's administrators say. Some hills within eyesight of the center are being leveled for hospitals specializing in elderly care and new apartments. To accommodate more seniors, the health town has branched out into a new center in the other part of the city, which draws about 1,000 daily attendants.

   The senior center was built with 69 billion won, jointly funded by the central and city governments. Its annual operation budget, 7 billion won, mostly comes from city coffers. There have been budget cuts due to the criticism that the senior center takes away too much of the city's money. Concerns also remain that the center may still be beyond reach for the seriously disabled and poorest seniors, as those who actively engage in a social setting tend to be in relatively good health and financially stable.

The "trio" of volunteers at the senior health town -- Park Seong-geun (R), Han Pyeong-seok(C) and Jang Jae-bong -- keep up in health and happiness through their work. (Courtesy of Bitgoeul Senior Health Town)

South Korea has been very stingy when it comes to taking care of the aged. It spends 1.7 percent of its gross domestic product on senior welfare, just a quarter of the OECD average of 6.8 percent, according to the government think tank Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs. The poverty rate of its elderly population hovers over 45 percent, the highest among the OECD nations. The Korean elderly, like the nation's overall population, have the highest suicide rate, with 80.3 seniors out of 100,000 taking their own lives compared to the OECD average of 20.9.

   The elderly members acknowledge the insecurity of funding but hope to convey how much the center means to them.

   For Yun Nam-byeong, 73, a retired maintenance worker, the senior center fills his yearning for education, which had to stop after elementary school because of the 1950-53 Korean War and poverty.

   "I told my sons, 'I couldn't learn when I was young so I want to learn here,'" he said. As well as ballroom dancing, he is learning English and hopes to try Chinese and Japanese someday. "When I'm here, time passes too fast."

   Hwang In-seop, 86, attends his calligraphy and computer classes with his wife, who is suffering from Alzheimer's, seated beside him. The daily outings help them carry on their old companionship.

   "We come here together because I can't leave her alone at home," Hwang said, holding her hand as they headed home.