SEOUL: Four times a week, Mr Lee Gwan Woo’s elderly mother would insist on being dropped off in the nondescript neighbourhood of Jongno and disappear for the entire day, refusing to tell him what she got up to.
For years, Mr Lee did as his mother wished. Then one day, he decided to follow her, and found her in a Colatec - a disco for seniors - notorious for its K drama-worthy romances and love triangles.
He was shocked at first. But then, he realised that this was good for her.
“She would come here and just have a cup of coffee. I saw that she really enjoyed being with other seniors. She stayed healthy that way - she’s 96 now,” said Mr Lee, now in his 70s, who ended up buying over the disco because he wanted to help other seniors too.
Past the heavy, sound-proof doors of the discotheque, couples pair up under the fairy lights while others wait their turn on the rest benches around the dancefloor.
At the bar, bottles of soju, beer and makgeolli sell quickly - it doesn’t matter that it’s only 11am. One distinguishing feature about this discotheque is its opening hours - doors open at 10am, and shut by 5pm, for the safety of the seniors.
Still, people here are dizzy with Saturday night fever. Mr Lee Gangma, a 79-year-old decked out in a three-piece suit and aviator sunglasses, likes to think of this as “exercise”.
“We have fun, and it’s good for dementia. This is better than any treatment at the hospital! I come here 25 times a month, yes, 25 times - with my partner!” he said, as he spun away with the permed-haired lady in his arms into the razzle dazzle of the dancefloor.
Because of the negative perception that society has of these Colatecs, some patrons have to keep their hobby a secret. It’s no wonder perhaps that the seniors here have a youthful and rebellious spirit about them.
One lady in her 70s said: “Some people don’t tell their families they come here. But we’re not doing anything wrong, we just like dancing.”
WATCH: 4 ways to keep young (2:48)
Owner Mr Lee said that many seniors previously hung around the Jongno subway station, or gathered with their friends at the park, even during the winter months. “They liked to go there to drink soju, because senior citizen centres were always too crowded,” he said.
Reasons like this prompted him to buy over the disco with the intention of having it be an alternative hangout for seniors to “make friends and enjoy their lives”.
The entrance fee is just 1,000 won (S$1.20). No wonder it has proven to be a popular place - up to 1,200 seniors spend their days here dancing, eating, drinking and socialising.
Said owner Mr Lee:
If they stay at home alone, they feel depressed, and get dementia. But if they come here, they make friends, boyfriends and girlfriends, drink a bit of Soju, and their problems get solved.
“I don’t earn that much from this - I think of how it benefited my mum, and I want to do this for other seniors. Businesses like these should get government support so we can expand to more places.”
TURNING BACK THE CLOCK FOR SENIORS
Other elderly-friendly businesses have been popping up in the same neighbourhood. A short distance from the disco, seniors can get a cheap haircut at an old-school barber, have lunch at a retro-diner, and listen to nostalgic tunes at the record store.
At the silver cinema, huge murals of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe take you back to the golden years of Hollywood. There are even places to store your walking sticks, and signs are in larger font.
These businesses which cater to the elderly get incentives such as rent subsidies from the city council.
At the diner, customers sing along to old hits like The Young Ones and other Korean folk songs, and order meals that were common in their childhood - bento boxes with luncheon meat and side dishes or plain noodles in a soupy clear broth.
Their resident deejay Jang Minook, 62, said: “I play music and tell stories that take the elderly back to the past. I’m the one who provides a bridge to those memories, and I feel very happy and proud of myself.”
Life spans in South Korea are increasing rapidly. The average 60-year-old South Korean can be expected to live for another 24 years. And it’s predicted that come 2030, women here will be the first in the world to live longer than 90 years on average, according to The Lancet.
But there is concern that there has to be more public support for the elderly, especially as traditional Korean values of confucianism and filial piety continue to erode.
Already, half of the country’s elderly citizen live in poverty, and the country has the world’s highest rate of elderly suicide. (Read our previous story about elderly poverty)
Said Mr Jang about the retro diner: “There are too few places like this. We have an ageing population and people are living longer. I wish there would be more places for seniors to enjoy the arts.”
One restaurant patron, Mr Kim Busik, 69, feels that seniors need to think themselves young, to stay young. “When you look around, everyone looks so old. It’s so hard to find good-looking old men,” he said.
Mr Kim said he remains youthful by taking care of his skin - he goes for facial massages and moisturises every day. He also goes to the disco three times a week with his girlfriend - when she’s off from her duties as a grandmother.
“We go out and socialise with other people and we eat at good places. This is how we should spend our time,” he said.
SENIORS NEED ROMANTIC LOVE TOO
Buddhist Nun Hui Yoo, who heads the largest senior citizens centre in Seoul, encourages this attitude towards ageing. She said:
We act like we are oblivious to it, but there are stories of romance and love triangles at our centre. And I notice that seniors who express this love tend to be healthier too.
And with 40 per cent of the population projected to be over the age of 60 by 2050, she thinks society has to shift towards a more holistic way of caring for this growing demographic.
She noted: “In many countries, their concept of welfare is very care-oriented. We believe welfare isn’t only about physical welfare, but also cultural welfare.”
On that note, she sees nothing wrong with seniors having fun, going to discos and even finding love there.
“When they immerse themselves in a mixed-sex environment, it activates their endorphins and generates happy hormones; it is their way of staying young,” she said.
Read more about how seniors in Asia are bending the stereotypes of ageing – like Vietnam’s 97-year-old old granny who has mastered the Internet.