Not Your Grandma's Nonna: How Older Women In Italy Are Reclaiming Their Age
Women in Italy are living longer than ever. But severe economic and social inequality and loneliness mean that they urgently need a new model for community living – one that replaces the "one person, one house, one caregiver" narrative we have grown accustomed to.
ROME — Nina Ercolani is the oldest person in Italy. She is 112 years old. According to newspaper interviews, she enjoys eating sweets and yogurt. Mrs. Nina is not alone: over the past three years, there has been an exponential growth in the number of centenarians in Italy. With over 20,000 people who've surpassed the age of 100, Italy is in fact the country with the highest number of centenarians in Europe.
Life expectancy at the national level is already high. Experts say it can be even higher for those who cultivate their own gardens, live away from major sources of pollution, and preferably in small towns near the sea. Years of sunsets and tomatoes with a view of the sea – it used to be a romantic fantasy but is now becoming increasingly plausible.
Centenarians occupy the forefront of a transformation taking place in a country where living a long life means being among the oldest of the old. Italy is the second oldest country in the world, and it ranks first in the number of people over eighty. In simple terms, this means that Italy is home to many elderly people and few young ones: those over 65 make up almost one in four, while children (under 14) account for just over one in 10. The elderly population will continue to grow in the coming years, as the baby boomer generation, born between 1961 and 1976, is the country's largest age group.
But there is one important data set to consider when discussing our demographics: in general, women make up a slight majority of the population, but from the age of sixty onwards, the gap progressively widens. Every single Italian over 110 years old is a woman.
Never been better
The way people live after 60 has changed over time in relation to shifts in demographics. The current average age of the Italian population is 46.2 years, and life expectancy for women is almost 85 years, with these parameters steadily increasing. There are also social changes, such as a significant rise in the retirement age or the age at which people become parents and grandparents.
One consequence of these transformations is the emergence of a group we could call "young elders." This demographic shift also brings about cultural changes. Today, many elderly women enter universities and the job market, and quite a few continue to lead active social lives, travel, attend theaters, cinemas, and cultural events, and go to the gym well past the age of sixty.
Many are also breaking through glass ceilings. Marta Cartabia became the first female president of the Constitutional Court, and Gabriella Loppolo became the first female police chief in Messina. At the age of 72, Vienna Cammarota became the first woman to embark on the Silk Road, a 22,000-kilometer journey on foot from Venice to China. She wrote on her website, "I want to uproot the prejudices about women and the idea that a woman alone and of my age cannot or should not undertake this kind of adventure."
Women who cross the threshold of 60 find themselves caught between two opposing forces. The first is born of the spaces they have already conquered: their personal achievements and the lifestyles they have built. The second pushes them back towards outdated notions of what it means to be an elderly woman. Despite social norms, or perhaps because they have already challenged many of them, today's elderly women are reinventing how they experience old age. In part, as often happens, businesses have understood this shift: advertisements targeting 'young elderly' women who go out to restaurants, swim, and laugh about their watertight dentures are on the rise. Yet, in the collective media, political, and cultural imagination, elderly women have a single connotation: that of nonne (grandmothers), or even better, nonne who cook.
In her recently republished book Non è un Paese per Vecchie (No Country for Old Women), Loredana Lipperini illustrates how elderly women in Italy are essentially removed from the public space or only accepted if they behave, dress, and groom themselves "properly." This idea is also reflected in the essay "In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead" by the American author Susan J. Douglas: "Too many businessmen, politicians, and certainly the media still have blinders on when it comes to us women. Because it is assumed that elderly women are, for the most part, and even more so than young women, quiet, docile, and invisible."
Domenica Ercolani is currently the oldest known living person in Italy.
A land of disparities
For some, old age is the time to enjoy economic stability, leisure, and the company of loved ones, or to continue working and receiving recognition. However, for many others, old age means living through disastrous conditions.
The quality of one's life during old age depends greatly on their career during the active phase of life. Your pension determines whether you can have a comfortable home, pay for care services, or support your family. Women's lower participation in the labor market, career discontinuity, part-time work, and worse contractual and salary conditions create inequalities that have a lasting negative impact on their elderly years. Additionally, there is the burden of unpaid domestic and caregiving work, which falls disproportionately on women. Even when they do not participate in the labor market, women work more hours than men. As a result, they reach old age more worn out from work.
The large wage gap creates a population of elderly women living in poverty.
The 'gender pension gap' shows the disparity between pensions received by women and men. The INPS 2022 report highlights that even though women represent 52 percent of all pensioners, they receive only 44 percent of pension income. The average gross monthly income of men is 1,884 euros, 37 percent higher than the average 1,374 euros that women make. The majority of women fall into the category of low pension earners, creating a population of elderly women living in poverty.
The wage gap and the pension gap add to wealth disparity. It's a challenging estimate to make because in Italy, wealth, and poverty are measured on a household basis. However, in 2018, Giovanni D'Alessio conducted an experimental study for the Bank of Italy on the individual wealth of Italians, showing that the wealth gap between men and women is extremely high, and it grows wider as wealth increases (just like the wage gap). The individual net wealth of men is over 25 percent higher than that of women. This gap worsens to 35 percent when it comes to financial investments.
One of the consequences of these inequalities is that women live longer but reach old age in worse health conditions: LSTAT data indicate that women perform worse on all health indicators except for severe chronic diseases which are more common among men.
Of love and loneliness
Besides poverty and poor health, there's also a lack of love. According to LSTAT, only three out of 10 women over the age of 75 live in a couple relationship. For men, the equation is reversed. In other words, while it's quite reasonable for a man to expect to have company until his last day, it isn't so for a woman. Mara Gasbarrone, in an article oninGenere, emphasizes that loneliness significantly affects the quality of old age. The reason why many women live alone cannot be solely attributed to their greater longevity, Gasbarrone writes.
In Italian society, a union where the man is older is viewed favorably. It's the same culture that allows men to have an active romantic life for longer; in fact, after the age of 65, many more men marry than women, and as the groom's age increases, the age difference with the bride also increases. From the perspective of social sustainability, the opposite choice would make more sense: older women who are destined to live longer accompanied by younger men who are destined to live less.
And if in the past, the groom's older age was associated with greater economic stability, in 2022, the issue of stability no longer holds. For every couple that gets married, there's one that separates, and there's generally much more economic mobility than there once was. Only stereotypes remain.
In addition to stereotypes about relationships, there's the role of the traditional family as a privileged relational universe. The elderly almost always live very close to their children, but often without a strong network of friendships that would make new and different forms of cohabitation and companionship plausible. Most elderly people without a spouse live alone, and according to data reported by Gasbarrone, this increases the risk of dementia by 30 percent. In Italy, there are four and a half million women over 60 who live alone. They are mostly widowed but also single, divorced, or separated. They represent a significant part of the population – but generate hardly any discussion.
According to LSTAT, only three out of 10 women over the age of 75 live in a couple relationship.
Tomatoes and seaside views
The elderly women of today are the girls who participated in the feminist movement of the 70s. The presence of so many women who have transformed their lives through feminism and are now approaching old age could be a valuable resource. The same women who once spoke out against society could now break the silence on the living conditions of the elderly and the oppressive expectations posed on them. In Italy, they would have the numbers to lead a revolution.
In this worldview, it's essential to understand and support new forms of relationships and living arrangements. The Italian model – one person, one house, one caregiver – is unsustainable on many fronts and rife with the exploitation of caregivers. Among those women working in Italy with the most unfair contracts and lowest salaries, many are domestic workers and caregivers who have immigrated from Eastern European countries. In an analysis conducted before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, sociologist Francesca Alice Vianello observed that many of them are not young. In the Ukrainian community in Italy, 24 percent of women are over 60 years old, and only a tiny fraction receive a pension. The majority continue to work, primarily in domestic and caregiving roles.
We are therefore witnessing a general aging of a significant portion of the female foreign population living in Italy, accompanied by a parallel aging of the women employed as family caregivers. This is how we end up with young elderly women caring for older individuals.
The challenge, then, is to change the model and make possible reciprocity and mutual support. To rethink common services and shared housing. To nurture friendships that open up the possibility of cohabitation and cost-sharing. In Italy, particularly in the central-northern regions, the first experiments with senior cohousing have started, while Northern Europe already has established cohabitation experiences.
These are models in which individuals maintain their autonomy but share caregiving services and communal spaces. It's possible to sustain these arrangements with friends or by replacing dependence on the family of origin with interdependence among people who care for each other and have become a chosen family.
One could live in Sardinia with lifelong friends, cultivating tomatoes with a view of the sea.
Cohabitation doesn't necessarily require specific, codified places and spaces, but to make it happen, we need to change our concept of family and imagine a different form of welfare.
Undoubtedly, it would be wonderful to live in a house with an ocean view, like Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin's characters in "Grace and Frankie." It's one of the rare TV series that depicts old age as a complex but vibrant time full of possibilities, including those of a romantic and erotic nature. However, one could also live in a house in Sardinia or Liguria (the two regions in Italy with the highest life expectancy) with lifelong friends, cultivating tomatoes with a view of the sea.
In France, women did just that when they built the La Maison Des Babayagas in 2012, a cohabitation project for women based on feminist, ecological, participatory, and solidarity principles, aimed at living "free and old." It's time to rethink what kind of lives we want after the age of 65, 75, or even beyond 100.
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