Elderly Italians lean on immigrants for care

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

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

Mr. Marzano is one of a growing number of Italians entrusting themselves to an army of foreign workers from Eastern Europe, South America, Asia and Africa who do what families there 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 countries with the oldest populations are in Europe, noted a joint report by the European Commission and AARP, a U.S. lobby for the elderly. Japan, with 27 percent of its population older than 60 in 2005, is a shade grayer than Italy’s 26 percent.

Italian life expectancy is 78.3 years for men and 84 for women. But more significantly, Italy holds the world record for the highest percentage of what analysts call the “old old.” One out of every five elderly Italians is over 80.

Meanwhile, 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 fierce opposition by the Vatican 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.

While decisions to have one or no children 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 Mr. Marzano, running his cane through his fingers and fretting about how he’ll manage this summer with substitute home companions when Mrs. Duda, a 48-year-old divorced woman, visits her family in Ukraine.

Mr. Marzano 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 Mrs. Duda is off, a granddaughter comes to keep him company. On Sundays, Mrs. Duda’s other day off, his son’s family brings him lunch, but they don’t stay with him to eat it, Mr. 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 Mr. Marzano.

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