Italy’s grandparents grow restless as pandemic stretches into 2021

Rome: From his newsstand at the bottom of two hilly streets in Rome, Armando Alviti has been dispensing newspapers, magazines and good cheer to locals from before dawn till after dusk nearly every day for more than a half-century.

Alviti chuckles as he recalled how, when he was a young boy, newspaper deliverers would drop off the day's stacks at his parents’ newsstand, sit him in the emptied baskets of their motorbikes and take him for a spin.

Since he turned 18, Alviti has operated the newsstand seven days a week, with a wool tweed cap to protect him from the Italian capital's winter dampness and a tabletop fan to cool him during its torrid summers. A mighty battle therefore ensued when the coronavirus reached Italy and his two grown sons insisted that Alviti, who is 71 and diabetic, stay home while they took turns juggling their own jobs to keep the newsstand open.

Armando Alviti, 71, insists on working in the news stand in Rome he’s run for 50 years. Credit:AP

“They were afraid I would die. I know they love me crazy,” Alviti said.

Throughout the pandemic, health authorities around the world have stressed the need to protect the people most at risk of complications from COVID-19, including the elderly. With 23 per cent of its population age 65 or older, Italy has the world's second-oldest population, after Japan, with 28 per cent.

The average age of Italy’s COVID-19 dead has hovered around 80, many of them people with previous medical conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. Some politicians advocated limiting how much time elders spent outside of their homes to avoid lockdowns of the general population that were costly to the economy.

Among them was the governor of Italy's northwestern coastal region of Liguria, where 28.5 per cent of the population is age 65 or older. Governor Giovanni Toti, who is 52, argued for such an age-specific strategy when a second surge of infections struck Italy in the fall.

Older people are “for the most part in retirement, not indispensable to the productive effort” of Italy’s economy, Toti said.

To the news vendor in Rome, those were fighting words. Alviti said Toti’s remarks “disgusted me. They made me very angry.”

“Older persons are the life of this country. They’re the memory of this country,” he said. Self-employed older adults like him especially “can’t be kept under a bell jar,” he said.

The pandemic's heavy toll on older people, particularly those in nursing homes, might have served to reinforce ageism, or prejudice against the elderly.

The label “old” means “40, 50 years of life being lumped in one category,” said Nancy Morrow-Howell, a professor of social work at Washington University in S. Louis who specialises in gerontology. She noted that these days, people in their 60s often are caring for parents in their 90s.

“Ageism is so accepted … it’s not questioned,” Morrow-Howell said in a telephone interview. One form it takes is “compassionate ageism," Morrow-Howell said, the idea that "we need to protect older adults. We need to treat them as children.”

Alviti’s family won the first round, keeping him away from work until May. His sons implored him to stay home again when the coronavirus rebounded in the fall.

He struck a compromise. One of his sons opens the newsstand at 6am and Alviti takes over two hours later, limiting his exposure to the public during the morning rush.

Fausto Alviti said he’s afraid for his father, “but I also realise for him to stay home, it would have been worse, psychologically. He needs to be with people.”

Like so many Italian grandparents, Rita Cintio, 76, and Felice Santini, look after their grandchildren Elisa and Gaia so their parents can work. Credit:AP

Marco Trabucchi, a psychiatrist based in the northern Italian city of Brescia who specialises in the behaviour of older adults, thinks the pandemic has prompted people to reconsider their attitudes.

"Little attention was given to the individuality of the old. They were like an indistinct category, all equal, with all the same problems, all suffering,” Trabucchi said.

In Italy, with childcare centres chronically scarce, legions of older adults, some decades beyond retirement, effectively double as essential workers by caring for their grandchildren.

According to Eurostat, the European Union's statistics bureau, 35 per cent of Italians older than 65 look after grandchildren several times a week.

Felice Santini, 79, and his wife, Rita Cintio, 76, are such a couple. They take care of the two youngest of their four grandchildren throughout the week.

“If we didn't care for them, their parents couldn't work," said Santini. “We're helping them (a son and daughter-in-law) stay in the productive work force.”


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