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The Right to Self-Determination of South Korea’s Older Population

Every life has a meaningful purpose. Humans, in particular, are complex beings who are journeying through various stages of life with different goals and dynamics typifying each of those life stages. Old age, the last stage of life, is recognized to have a unique purpose of its own–completing the entire lifecycle by achieving self-integration and wholeness of life. An essential factor to fulfill this purpose is an older individual’s ability to make independent, self-reliant decisions about his or her life.

This study reviews the distinctive characteristics of old age, with particular attention given to the significant meaning of self-determination in the late stage of life. Specifically, senior adults of South Korea are discussed whose self-determination is often interrupted by sociocultural environment. An ultimate objective of this study is to address how to empower the elderly to exercise self-willed decision-making.

Old age refers to a phase of life past mature adulthood, turning toward the end of life, i.e. death. While adulthood is normally marked by activities and energy at their peak, old age shows numerous signs of unavoidable decline in physical, mental, and social functions. In other words, old age is a period of life bordering two extremes–greatest achievements on one end and death on the other. Such seemingly abrupt change in life accompanied by a noticeable deterioration toward death makes people of that stage feel confused, anxious and helpless. Nonetheless, some important life decisions need to be made at this juncture.

Other than frailty and dysfunction, a particular set of social and cultural surroundings hold back Korea’s older adults from self-determined decision-making. The specific social grounds to limit their self-determination are investigated by looking into Korea’s sociocultural traits. Most of all, how fast population aging affects its sociocultural behavior is examined with a target age group set to be those who had experienced post-war confusion and steep economic growth.

Throughout the discussion, the inquiry into three domains will be covered: 1) identifying the characteristics of the seniors cohort in South Korea, with the difficulties and struggles of their life underlined; 2) exploring what Korean seniors need to prepare for the last stage of life; 3) introducing some personal and social strategies for promoting self-determination of the seniors, followed by the analysis of each approach in its feasibility for real life application.


Ji-kyeong Kim is a current Ewha Womans University bioethics policy doctoral student. Her research areas include medical ethics consultation and hospital ethics committee activities, in connection with provision of life support. In particular, Ji-kyeong is interested in applying bioethical theories to uniquely Korean situations. She has earned a bachelor degree in Psychology from Catholic University and a master degree in Philosophy from Yonsei University. She wrote her master’s thesis on virtue ethics and action guidance.