Friday, October 13, 2017

On Korea's Aging Population and the Importance of Arts Participation

"Advocating diversities within aging can lead us to have better civic dialogue with other generations in aging societies. Additionally, the arts are one of the most powerful medium to open this conversation with each other.-- Ahyoung Yoon, PhD

Ahyoung at the LFFoA in SF. Photo: P. Trang
During the 7th Annual Legacy Film Festival on Aging in San Francisco (LFFoA), which took place between September 15th - 17th, I met an enthusiastic film festival attendee who had traveled from Ohio to be part of our annual 3-day event. Her name is Ahyoung Yoon, and she recently earned a doctoral degree from the Department of Arts Administration, Education and Policy at Ohio State University. Her dissertation is titled “Aging and arts policy: Interrogating Perceptions of Older People in South Korea”.  Currently, Ahyoung is working with South Korea's Seoul International Senior Film Festival (SISFF), and Howling at the Moon, a theater group based in Columbus, Ohio, comprised of women aged 60 and older. I've been noticing more articles on the topic of Korea's aging population, and recently, I've read that for the first time in history, South Korea has more elderly than children. Needless to say, interviewing Ahyoung has been a fantastic experience as she has both relevant knowledge and personal experiences with older Koreans, as well as a genuine interest in older adults' creativity and wellbeing. 

How did you become interested in the aging population of Korea?
While my dissertation is about aging in South Korea, Korean older adults are not my only interest. I also have interests in the “aging population in general”. I have always wondered why the typical images on older adults do not fit with older adults whom I know. It is clear that there are so many varieties within ‘older adults’ and we tend not to pay due attention to them. 

There is also a personal reason for my interest: I had cancer. I have learned through this experience that my identity as a cancer patient tends to overpower my other identities. This is very similar to the images we generally have of older people. In other words, I have realized that the image we have of older people has bearing upon aging-related policy and/or programs on older populations.

For instance, we know that some older adults are richer/healthier/more active than some younger people. However, we tend to think that older people are weaker/poorer/more passive than younger generations. On an individual level of thinking, we agree there are varieties within the age group, but when thinking on the public policy level (or even in movies!), we tend to simply symbolize people who are in their 60s or more as fragile, poor individuals. 

Q&A and discussion at the Seoul International Senior Film Festival. Source: Seoul International Senior Film Festival
I want to highlight there are various social dynamics among aging and older people. Advocating diversities within aging can lead us to have better civic dialogue with other generations in aging societies. Additionally, the arts are one of the most powerful medium to open this conversation with each other. This is the reason why I am interested in arts participation of older population and arts and aging policy.

In Korea, population aging is serious issue but it tends to be discussed only as a demographic disaster. I do not believe that older people are simply burden in our society - both in the US and in South Korea. Aside from senility or poverty in later life, we have little knowledge on the other aspects of aging. 

Do you have personal memories of being around older people, such as grandparents? How was the experience of interacting with older persons?
When I was young, I loved to be near older aunts and uncles because they always had fascinating stories that younger adults did not seem to have. History in textbooks seemed a bit vague and distanced from daily life, but their life stories, during the Korean war for example, were so vivid. They made history come alive for me. The wisdom older people have accumulated throughout their lives are also valuable to me. For instance, older adults with disabilities managed how to live with discomfort or changes of their own body.

Recently, I also met very powerful older women through Howling at the Moon. I call them my Howling mothers! It is a pure honor to meet these brave women who face their aging with love and humor, and make creative performances in terms of their own later life. I learned from these women that aging is not about age, but about living.

What is the current situation of the aging population in Korea?
From a global perspective, population aging in Korea (South Korea in particular) is almost a disaster. By 2050, over 40 percent of our total population will be age 60 and older:

Older men walking in Gyeong-ju, South Korea.
Due to the rapidly dropping fertility rate, the aging population has been accelerating in recent years. Therefore, in 2005 the Korean government launched a basic framework plan for an aging society and population policy by the law (Framework Act on Low Birth Rate in an Aging society). Every five-years, the Presidential Committee on Ageing Society and Population Policy addresses the fundamental direction of aging policy through this plan. While three Plans have been launched and all levels of government are trying their best to support older adults, the situation does not appear to be bright due to the complex nature of aging in Korea.

About older adults-related policy (i.e. heath care and public pension): South Korea has a universal health care system (Approximately 97% of total population had access in 2016). The system is not perfect, yet most of the population can access public medical support. The public pension system, however, has a long way to go. Thus, economic security and poverty in later life are more critical issues compared to health care in South Korea.

Is there anything about aging that is unique to Korea as a culture?
It is hard to generalize but there are two main daily cultural aspects that may affect Korean attitudes on aging: Age as social respect; and Paternalistic family culture.

Daughters and daughters-in-law provide care for elders.
Age as social respect. Koreans tend to show respect each other based on age order. You can easily observe that Koreans (or even Korean Americans) ask each other’s age in order to find out who is older than who. This recognition affects how to behave to the other party.

Paternalistic family culture. Traditional Confucian/Paternalistic family culture still lingers in everyday Korean culture. In relating to aging in South Korea, for instance, it is still common that women (daughters or daughters-in-laws) have major responsibilities on caregiving in one’s family.

What are attitudes towards aging among Korean citizens? (For example, is there much ageism?)
Ageism - absolutely! If we define ageism as “positive and/or negative attitudes based on age,” I believe ageism is not just an issue in the U.S.

Traditionally in Korea, older adults were considered as wise elders in a community or family. However, in this neoliberal and IT (Information Technology) era, age is not always the best asset for a person.

In addition, there are myths that older adults are generally politically conservative and support only conservative political party. With recent political events (for instance, the impeachment of former President Park), negative views on older adults has been increasing. There have been some violent demonstrations by extreme conservative groups of older adults against the impeachment decision of the constitutional court. While the myths only serve partial truth, it seems that the negative societal perceptions of older adults have been reinforced and amplified during recent political events.

What are the positives about the aging Korean population? What are some challenges? What is something you learned about the Korean aging population or older persons that you think might be beneficial for other countries and people to know about? What types of intergenerational connections exist between young and older people in Korea? 
Wow, so many things to discuss! Please let me begin with social issues in relation to population aging followed by intergenerational programs as a policy solution. Then, I will shed light on potentials that older adults in Korea have.

Social Issues on Aging 
Elder poverty in Korea is well-known and has become a serious socio-economic issue. Also, in similar with Japan, the issues, such as increasing single older adults, lone death, or aging in rural area, are grave challenges in South Korea. Women or LGBTQ issues in aging have not yet been widely discussed. Also, as previously mentioned above, gradually accumulated negative perceptions and images on older Koreans would become critical issue as the proportion of older adults has increased. (Recent article from the Guardian:

However, among those all significant challenges, I believe the most critical issue is that not many voices of older adults are heard in Korea. The extreme conservative political group mentioned above is just one of many voices of older Koreans. Advocate groups such as AARP or Legacy Film Festival on Aging that not only advocate for the older population, but also allow opportunities to consider older adults themselves as vital members of society, are not active in Korea. I believe more organizations or groups speaking on behalf of older adults are needed. There are a few potential seeds for advocacy of Korean older adults. For instance, there is The Senior Policy Monitoring Group which is initiated by the Seoul city government. The group works with the Seoul city government to establish Aging Friendly Seoul. By inviting older Seoul citizens to take part in the policy process, their perspectives and voices are brought into the Seoul aging policy field.

Intergenerational dialogue between older Movie docents and youth at the touring program in SISFF. Source: Seoul International Senior Film Festival
Intergenerational Policy Efforts
In Korea, an intergenerational approach has been also considered as one policy solution. There are intergenerational programs such as grandparenting, mentoring programs (older mentors give professional advice to younger mentees in certain jobs), intergenerational arts programs (older women read books to preschoolers) in Korea, as many other countries have.
Among many, I would like to introduce Seoul International Senior Film Festival, as an example of arts and aging programs, in Korea. [Seoul International Senior Film Festival] aims to (1) encourage older adults to directly and actively participate film festival by also offering media education (including film production). Also, it (2) opens its competition to younger film directors who produce films on aging. Through two-track approach, the festival works as an intergeneration film event which stimulates the civic dialogue on current aging in Korea.

I believe the older Korean generation has a stronger sense of values such as diligence, patience and sacrifice for a so-called greater cause. The older generation is responsible for the growth of the current South Korean economy, over the remains of Japanese Imperialism and the Korean war. They sacrificed their individual benefits and lives for the sake of community and/or national causes. However, my thought is that the values this older generation shares, such as patience and sacrifice, have shadowed limitations of the social safety net. 

Grandparenting, for instance, has long been uncritically considered as a (policy) solution for the low birthrate in Korea. While I do not object to the positive sides of grandparenting, it is certain that the sacrifice (or non-paid work) of the older generation has not been properly recognized.

A big THANK YOU to AhYoung Yoon for your interview for GeroInspired. In addition to learning about the aging population of Korea, it was meaningful to hear your views on the the importance of arts participation among older people and your relevant work that supports your views. There are many creative, meaningful avenues to explore in older age. What was interesting for me is that despite cultural differences between Korea and the US regarding policies and attitudes on aging, two similarities stood out for me: ageism exists in society, and the majority of family caregivers are women. These are topics that remain vital topics of discussion amongst many of us. Dear readers, thank you for visiting and reading this helpful and heartfelt interview with Ahyoung Yoon. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on film festivals about aging, arts participation for older people, aging population of Korea, and other relevant topics.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Intergenerational Connections as the New Norm.

"We want every youth-serving organization in cities across the country to actively seek out older workers and volunteers, and to stand with us as we create a new societal norm for intergenerational collaboration." - Sarah McKinney, Communications Director, Generation to Generation

Photos: Ed Kashi (top left, bottom right); Woodwalk (top right, bottom left).

Entering my 50s, I have been thinking more about what I can do to help future generations. I'm noticing that this desire for generativity is common among friends who are also in mid-life, as we now have life experiences and useful skills to share with young people. Needless to say, I am thrilled to feature an interview with Sarah McKinney, Communications Director for's Generation to Generation, a campaign that fosters intergenerational connections with the aim of helping the Youth. Sarah explains the campaign in greater detail, and now I'm feeling fired up! I'm sure you will be too!

What is the Generation to Generation campaign?
Generation to Generation (Gen2Gen) is’s 5-year campaign to mobilize the over-50 population to fight inequality in the next generation, by “standing up and showing up” for young people -- particularly those growing up against the odds. Through our large and growing network of wonderful partner organizations and communities, Gen2Gen will shine a light on the transformative intergenerational work currently being done, share best practices to encourage increased participation, and pursue thought-leadership and media activities that work to normalize youth-focused service in later life. 

How did this idea come about?
In many ways, Gen2Gen is a return to’s roots. Back in 1995 Marc Freedman,’s founder and CEO, worked with others to launch what is now AARP Experience Corps -- a program designed to engage people over 50 as tutors and mentors in some of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods and lowest-performing elementary schools. Freedman still often refers to as a mentoring organization in the guise of an aging organization! 

Over the past two decades we’ve launched several other innovative programs, such as Encore Fellowships and The Purpose Prize, engaged in a lot of storytelling and research, and hosted several convenings to bring “encore career” enthusiasts together. Gen2Gen is an attempt to channel this community of wise adults to one specific social issue -- vulnerable children and youth -- and, in the process, demonstrate the unique power this (growing) segment of the population holds to solve other significant social problems. 

"...people are genuinely excited about this idea, of matching this growing population of older adults to children and youth who need extra support, and see it as a no-brainer." - Sarah

What are the main goals that you hope to accomplish with this campaign?
There are so many people in mid-life and beyond who are already doing the work we’re advocating, whether it be helping to raise their grandkids, nieces or nephews, volunteering at their local community center or church, or raising their hand to get involved at a youth-serving nonprofit whose mission speaks to them. We want to connect with these individuals and let them know they’re part of something big, powerful, and important. We want to reach a huge number of new people, inspire them to connect with kids (age 0-24) who need support, and have them identify with the Gen2Gen campaign. We want every youth-serving organization in cities across the country to actively seek out older workers and volunteers, and to stand with us as we create a new societal norm for intergenerational collaboration. While the media continues to focus on how divided our country is, we want Gen2Gen to be a bridge that connects people across age, race, background and social class for the benefit of all. 

What excites you the most about the Gen2Gen campaign?
I was originally drawn to because I related to the idea of making a career change, and using your collective experience for good. After spending over a decade in market research, I went back to graduate school and received my MBA from a program called Presidio Graduate School -- which is about how business can become a force for good. I was exposed to the movement of young people seeking purpose-driven careers, and simultaneously became aware of and the “encore career” movement. Finding ways to connect these generations is what my initial role at was focused on. Outside of work, the social issue I’m most passionate about is addiction and recovery. So personal transformation -- and helping people reach their potential -- is the common current running through my life, and the thing that motivates me to do what I do.

The opportunity to work on the Gen2Gen team came about right as I discovered I was pregnant with my first child. It’s incredible how becoming a parent shifts your perspective! I feel very personally invested in creating a better future for future generations, and doing what I can to give every child the chance to thrive. I’ve also been on both the giving and receiving end of mentorship, which is a big part of the Gen2Gen campaign, and have always loved spending time with people who are much younger and older than me. So working on this campaign and helping it reach more people is a “fit” on many levels.

Photo: Ed Kashi
Are there any unique challenges to making this happen?
This is a big goal! We know many people are feeling particularly inspired to take action right now. Our partner VolunteerMatch recently reported record-breaking traffic, with over 500k people seeking volunteer opportunities within a single week! But making clear the urgency of intergenerational work when there are so many other social issues that feel urgent right now -- that can be a challenge. It’s not a particularly unique challenge, however, as every organization is competing for people’s attention. And whenever we do describe what we’re up to with Gen2Gen we don’t experience resistance -- people are genuinely excited about this idea, of matching this growing population of older adults to children and youth who need extra support, and see it as a no-brainer.

Do you have an interesting Gen2Gen success story? 
We launched in November and it tends to take a little time to go through the screening process at youth-serving organizations (all are required to do background checks) and then develop a meaningful relationship with a child, but we currently have some great stories of older adults doing youth-focused work in our story bank and would LOVE to hear more, if any of your readers want to share theirs

One cool thing to report is that during the month of January we focused on encouraging people to explore opportunities through MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, and it resulted in our being their third highest source of referral traffic, just behind LinkedIn and We’re excited to offer this value to other partners in the months and years ahead. 

What are some small action steps each person, such as myself, can take to contribute to this movement?
First off, you can make sure you’ve joined the campaign! Just visit our homepage and enter your email into the pop-up box. If you don’t see that, click the “Count me in” button for it to appear. Next up, join us on social media. We recently created a Gen2Gen Facebook group where we want to cultivate a strong sense of community -- request to join and once you’re approved, introduce yourself to the group, explaining what interests you about bringing generations together! has an active Facebook page and Twitter handle, where we’re often posting about the campaign. Or if you’re more of a LinkedIn person, has a LinkedIn group where you can post and read stories of interest. Last but not least, explore volunteer and DIY ideas

Is there anything else you would like to add?
We’re currently in the process of developing a strategy to engage “champions” -- those who want to recruit others to join the campaign and spread the message within their communities. If you’re reading this and that’s of interest to you, we’d love to hear from you. Please email and use the subject line “Koko’s Blog” so we know what the message is in reference to. Thank you!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Advice to my 20-Year-Old Self.

“When the cake is passed, take a piece.” - Mary, age 84 

Our 20 Year Old Selves. Top: Linda, Jim, Mary (with her mom).
Bottom: Aanchal, Phu, Lisa, and Koko.

Since turning 50 last summer, I've been thinking about life lessons I've learned from my twenties through the present. What have I really learned? As if on cue, a recent article touched up on what older women wish they could tell their younger selves. The question posted on a Reddit forum asked, "So if you could give your 20-year-old-self some advice, what would you say?" Rachel Hoise, the author, expressed some disappointment when it was revealed that the most common advice centered on either losing weight or not gaining weight. While I know concerns with weight are not unusual, I too was surprised by this popular advice. Therefore, I became curious about what advice friends might give to their 20-year-old selves, and below are their answers (I've also included my answer):

Aanchal, 35
No matter how busy life gets, take the time to engage in an act of service every once in awhile. Touch another person's soul with your kindness. It'll make you happier, too!

Phu, 43
Listen to your heart and pursue hobbies you're interested in. Make great friends and don't lose touch (Think quality, not quantity). Find a good mentor. Buy your house early as an investment. Explore the world. Take any opportunity to make your life better. Overcome your fears. Always believe that all your goals and dreams are possible.

Koko, 50
Find your voice and learn to listen to it as you navigate yourself through life. Be true to who you are and don't delegate another to be the expert of YOUR life, because only you can know what would make you happy and fulfilled.

Linda, 52
The advice I would give to my 20 year old self would be to remember that your credit scores are important and any negative impact on them could affect important things like securing a loan, renting an apartment, buying a car or a house.

Lisa, 52

If I could give my somewhat clueless 20-year old self some advice, it would be to not get so caught up in the expectations that I had for myself and live life with an open heart. 

Todd, 53
Follow the guidance of a mentor you respect. Keep your body and mind healthy. Respect and abide by the law.Treat people how you want to be treated. Respect yourself and others. Always ask if you can help other people. Do things the best you can.

Jim, 64
The advice I would offer my younger self is Mary Oliver's counsel in her classic poem "The Journey" which ends: 

...But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

The reason this poem resonates so deeply is that I had a difficult relationship with my parents. I felt caught between wanting to please them and trying to be true to myself. I didn't even know who I was, or how to find out. I knew I was different -- from them in many ways, and from others -- especially after I acknowledged my identity as a gay man. I was looking for love ("in all the wrong places" as the song goes) not realizing that what I was seeking wasn't to be found in the world, but within. Now, at age 64, after years of challenging and rewarding therapy, I am much happier and healthier than I was in my twenties. I wish I could communicate with my younger self and explain that (I hate that campaign) "it gets better" by taking responsibility for the one thing you can change, your own life.

Sheila, 78
If you have saved enough money from your summer jobs, plus selling blouses at Bloomingdales' during the holidays, think about putting off college for a year, and instead, take a 'Gap Year', and travel abroad. Try to find a group of like-minded people to travel with part of the time.

Be mindful of your health:  cut out the sugar completely (may take some time), and exercise every day -- ok, 6 days a week -- doing something you like: eg, biking, gym, dancing,skiing, etc. Get fresh air every day (a walk is refreshing). Be kind and respectful to others (including your parents), and to yourself. Laugh a lot.

Mary, 84
When I was a sophomore  in college, my aunt and uncle were going for a one week’s vacation in Jamaica and invited me to go with them. I was very tempted but it would mean missing school: classes scheduled, papers due, tests given. 

I told my mother of my dilemma. She looked at me and said:
“When the cake is passed, take a piece.”
‘Nuff said.

As you can see, there is wide variety in the types of advice friends have shared. In reality, our 20-year-old selves may not listen to the advice of our older selves. Nevertheless, self-reflecting on our advice can be helpful in revealing how much we've grown! Turning the same question to you, dear readers, what advice would you give your 20-year-old selves?