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Caring for the elderly as a business also makes economic sense for the nuns.

When there were no longer enough children to fill the classrooms, the Disciples of Sisters of Eucharistic Jesus converted a nursery and elementary school in Rome’s middle-class Garbatella neighborhood into a rest home.

“Our mothers stayed at home caring for their mothers and their mothers-in-law,” said Sister Maria Cecilia at the home. “Now women work and don’t even have time to care for their own children.”

The residents, who the nuns call “guests,” pay $1,770 month — a modest sum compared with the United States where monthly costs in a large city can easily top $10,000.

Ninety-year-old Italia Matteucci, elegant in a long pearl necklace, pearl stud earrings, a red cardigan and a wool plaid skirt, pays for her room in the former elementary school from her monthly pension check.

She was living alone in a studio apartment, but “I was afraid that they’d find me dead there some day,” and so she turned to the nuns.

Her 68-year-old daughter has health problems, and her two grandsons, in their 30s, rarely come either, said Mrs. Matteucci.

Many of the caregivers come from countries where families are large and the concept of abandoning the elderly is inconceivable.

“In my country you don’t see this,” said Rosa Elena Floris, an Ecuadorean taking a course for home companions at Rome’s Catholic Sacred Heart University. “We’re always at the side” of the elderly.

Miss Floris cared for an Italian woman for eight years until she died at 89.

“The woman had a son and a daughter, but she almost never saw them,” recalled Miss Floris. “They would call and say, ‘Is everything OK? Did she take her medicine?’ ”

When the university first offered the course in 1999, only foreigners enrolled, said Flavia Caretta, a medical doctor and geriatrics specialist who runs the program. But the course this year had a sprinkling of Italians, suggesting a growth industry offering careers.

The foreign caretakers earn about $1,500 monthly, a handsome amount compared with wages in their homelands, where they earn about 30 percent less if they live in and receive room and board.

Among the remedies for aging societies are raising the retirement age to save on pensions and encouraging bigger families.

This year, German lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to gradually raise the retirement age from 65 to 67 by 2012. Spain uses incentives to encourage people to work beyond 65.

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