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Empty nests leaving elderly home alone

With a declining birthrate and people living longer, immigrants and nuns have become caretakers for seniors in Italy.

August 19, 2007|Frances D'Emilio | Associated Press

ROME — As a police officer, Luigi Marzano was used to being in command. He still walks ramrod straight, but at 97, his memory is weakening and he has turned over control of his household to a virtual stranger half his age.

Rita Duda, who left Ukraine in search of work, lays out caffe latte and cookies each day for Marzano's breakfast, shops for him, and, every afternoon after his nap, accompanies him to a bench on the corner, which he visits with ladies and gentlemen in their 70s and 80s while their caretakers -- Ukrainians, Moldavians, Poles and Romanians -- catch up on gossip.

Marzano is one of a swelling number of Italians entrusting themselves to an army of foreign workers, from eastern Europe, South America, Asia and Africa who are doing what Italian families increasingly can't or won't do -- take care of their elderly.

Long life and low birthrates have conspired to change family life, which long had been the one institution Italians could count on while history rolled past, with its parade of conquerors and short-lived governments.

Italy's demographics -- and Europe's as a whole -- give new meaning to the term "Old World."

Twenty-four of the world's 25 oldest countries are in Europe, noted a joint report by the European Commission and AARP, a U.S. lobby for the elderly. Japan's population, with 27% older than 60 in 2005, is a shade grayer than Italy's 26%.

Italian life expectancy is 78.3 years for men and 84 for women. What's more significant, Italy holds the world record for the highest percentage of those experts call the "old old." One of every five elderly Italians is over 80.

Meanwhile, the incentives to have children are few. Italians joke that by the time their children qualify for scant public day care, they are too old for it. Tax breaks for minor dependents are miserly. Costly housing makes it hard to give a child his or her own room.

Italy, home to the Vatican and predominantly Catholic, legalized abortion in 1978, and Italians upheld the law in a 1981 referendum, despite the Vatican's fierce opposition to abortion.

And Italians have long tended to ignore Vatican teaching forbidding contraception.

Now, with so many living so long -- and with retirement possible as early as age 57 -- Italy is paying the price in medical care, pensions and social security for having so few children.

Although decisions to have one child -- or none -- might make for easier lifestyles when young, a generation or two later the choice means fewer children and grandchildren to help the aged.

"Without Rita, I wouldn't be able to manage," said Marzano, running his cane through his fingers and fretting about how he'll manage this summer with a substitute home companion when Duda, a 48-year-old divorced woman, visits her family in Ukraine.

Marzano has outlived his wife, sister, three brothers and a son.

His other son lives in the neighborhood with his daughter-in-law, who is in poor health.

On Thursday afternoons, when Duda is off, a granddaughter comes to keep him company. On Sundays, Duda's other day off, his son's family bring him lunch, but they don't stay with him to eat it, Marzano said.

"I would have thought I would have lived with my son; I would never have thought that it would be like this," said Marzano.

Duda and others, paid for by the elderly's children or by the elderly themselves, are Italy's fast-growing substitute for "assisted living" facilities, which are nearly nonexistent in this country.

Putting grandma or grandpa in a nursing home when they no longer are self-sufficient hasn't caught on much here, possibly because Italians tend to distrust institutions.

So the emphasis remains on the home, even while home is ever more likely to mean home alone.

In 1950, Italy had five adult children for every elderly parent. Now five has shrunk to a statistical 1.5 and by 2050 there won't even be one adult child for every elderly person, said Antonio Golini, a demographer at Rome's La Sapienza University.

So dependent have Italians become on the foreign caregivers that when the government offered an amnesty a few years ago for illegal immigrants, it placed no limits on the number of foreigners a family could employ if the workers cared for elderly.

Golini has been crusading for years for Italians to have more children, accept more immigrants and work longer.

"My terror is that we will reach old age abandoned," Golini, 69, said in an interview.

Italy's "grayest" region is Liguria, in the northwest, where 27.5% of its population is older than 65. There is a waiting list for a program providing the elderly with $475 a month to help pay for home companions.

"Old people, and especially those who are alone and not independent, are going to be one of the emergencies Italy will have to face in the future," said Massimiliano Costa, Liguria's commissioner for social policy.

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