Every morning, be it rain, shine or snow, 81-year-old Im Kwi Ho would travel for an hour on the subway from his home in the western city of Gimpo to Jongmyo Park in central Seoul 18km away, to spend time with his friends there. On some days, they would join a queue to get free lunch at a nearby charity kitchen. “I come here every day, 365 days a year. There’s lots to do here, like chatting with friends or playing a game of Korean chess, and we can get free meals sometimes,” says Mr Im with a hearty laugh. It’s a laugh that belies the harsh realities of ageing in Seoul where the life expectancy is one of the world’s highest at 82.4 years but the fertility rate is one of the world’s lowest at 1.21 children per woman, and where the tradition of the young caring for the old is ebbing away amid a flagging economy and high living costs. Mr Im, who lives with his wife and daughter, shakes his head when asked if he has enough money to get by. He has not worked for more than 30 years. He has no pension. The money that he had scrimped and saved from years of working as a construction worker has run out. He says his two children give him some cash, and he gets 130,000 won (S$155) every month in disability claims from the government for his knee injuries. He spends it mostly on food – a bowl of noodles costs around 3,000 won in the neighbourhood of Jongmyo. “Life is hard. The government should take better care of us, but their excuse is always that they don’t have enough money,” he laments. If the elderly population in Seoul continues to grow by about 60,000 a year, they will make up 14 per cent of the total population in the capital city by 2018, according to estimates. It is also worrying to see that about 74 per cent of these poverty-stricken elderly folk live alone, and many of them are not socially active and have no social support.