As the novel Coronavirus spreads worldwide, parts of Italy remain among the hotspots. The situation is changing daily, and in this post I don't want to get into politics, excuses, blame, or whether or not you should travel. Instead, I want to write about one of my favorite elements of Italian culture that is unfortunately working against it at the moment: the role of senior citizens in Italian society.
As I write this, Italy has 4636 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 197 deaths. This is currently the highest death toll outside of China and the number is only expected to go up. Why is Italy's number so high? Demographics play a big part, as well as culture.
According to the United Nations, the size of Italy's population that is 65 and older is 23% with a median age of 47.3 years.
Italy has the oldest population in Europe, and the second oldest in the world (after Japan).
Italian authorities have reported that the average age of deceased (due to COVID-19) in Italy is 81 years old, and the vast majority of deaths are in people who are 70 and older. Most have preexisting conditions, including heart disease and cancer.
These facts already put Italy at a disadvantage with COVID-19, a virus that is showing a high death rate among the elderly, but there's more to the story, and it's bittersweet. In Italy, senior citizens remain relevant, social and active members of society and this puts them at risk of catching this new virus.
I'm an American who fell in love with an Italian and I've married into a big, wonderful and loving Italian family. Beppe and I spend half our time in Italy, and I've quickly adapted to the long lunches with his parents, brothers, niece and nephews. But family time goes beyond just meals. Many businesses in Italy are family-owned, and Beppe's family's is no exception. They own a real estate company. While his parents are retired, they are still involved in important decisions and spend time at the office. Beppe's dad is also always available to lend us a helping hand with projects in the Tourissimo warehouse. Just this week while we're still in the USA, we got this photo of him making good use of old water bottles:
Families often go out together, for meals or for one of Italy's favorite pastimes, the passeggiata (more on that in a later blog).
And even without their families, Italy's senior citizens don't stay at home. Italians are social, no matter the age, and they go out for coffee or ice cream, for walks, to meet with their friends, to play cards or to work. When they are at home, they are visited frequently by family.
Italy has a high life expectancy and the quality of life is high. The island of Sardinia is even a Blue Zone. There are many reasons for these statistics, but one reason surely must be that in Italian culture, those 65 and older are still valued as productive and active members of society.
Society and Coronavirus
Sadly, since Italy's elderly are not hidden away and forgotten, they've become a target of COVID-19, a virus that is spread through close contact. There are still many unknowns, but it seems that 80% of people who catch the disease will have mild symptoms. Results are much worse for the elderly, and this wonderful part of the culture that usually contributes to a long, content life is now cutting some short.
Before widespread testing began in Italy, the virus had several weeks to spread, and it did, among the young and old. Italy is taking many steps to slow the spread, including putting entire towns in the "red zone" into quarantine, closing schools nationwide and encouraging those over 65 to stay home.
Once this crisis is over, I'm sure that worldwide we will have learned some lessons and some of our behaviors will change. What I hope doesn't change is the way that people of all generations interact and are allowed to participate in society in Italy. This is one of the beautiful things we love to portray on our tours. When we talk about "authentic" Italy, we are not just referring to the usual images that come to mind, but to the things that make up the soul of Italy. This intergenerational respect is one of those things.
Here are just a few shots from recent tours. When life returns to normal, Italy and all her young and young at heart citizens will be ready to host you again.
Photo credit: Ken Rivard
Photo credit: Ken Rivard