In May, Giovanni Toti, the governor of Liguria, Italy, stunned Italians around the world by saying older people were dispensable “to the productive effort” of Italy’s economy.
His quote originated from the challenge of keeping older adults at home and safe from the coronavirus. But he had disparaged a quarter of Italy’s population who were over the age of 65, a third of whom also looked after grandchildren while parents worked.
Italians are a proud and productive people. My grandfather ran the family shoe store until he was 83. His wife worked in the store until she was diagnosed with cancer. My father, after retiring from the shoe business, worked in real estate until he became debilitated after Parkinson’s disease. He and my mother provided childcare to two grandchildren from separate families.
According to ABC, a newspaper vendor in Rome took great offense at the governor’s statement. “Older Italians are the memory of this country,” Armando Alviti, a 71-year-old diabetic, said. During the pandemic, despite his children’s wishes, he continued to run his newspaper stand, one in which he had been working at since his teens.
Those pieces of our memories—and ourselves—are lost, as the vendor might describe, when responsibilities and duties that make up our identity are taken away. Technology, tradition and stories all play a role in how an individual’s sense of self is diminished or sustained.
Individuality in the Age of Technology and the Pandemic
As humans, we want people, activities and products to be immediately recognizable or labeled. But lately, shifts in our shared technologies have further solidified that notion, as we’re required to use quantifiable search terms and symbols that unite or divide. The individual gets lost, especially when considering the web of technology.
But Marco Trabucchi, a psychiatrist based in the northern Italian city of Brescia who specializes in the behavior of older adults, claimed the pandemic caused many to reconsider their thinking. "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.
We saw that played out, as not all aging adults were able to absorb the technology necessary to communicate with loved ones over Facetime or iPads. Other adults who were quarantined required physical exertion or more mental stimulation to cope with the changing restrictions during the pandemic. Despite the mantra of cities, states and countries that “we’re all in this together,” individuals, regardless of age, responded to the challenges in a way that reflected their own abilities and desires.
Holding on to Culture and Tradition
Once people enter the category of aging, their cultural experiences and traditions can also become lost as they navigate through their physical and mental health needs. My relatives displayed what we call “old country” attitudes or the immigrant mentality, which demanded they learn a new language, understand different cultural references, and apply a certain amount of grit to overcome the struggles of starting over in a foreign place. Thus, the cultural stories they carried with them made up their identity. Then, they began to age.
That process eliminated their ability to carry on traditions, such as making table wine from grapes grown in their backyard, cooking large holiday feasts, Christmas gift shopping for grandchildren or hosting Easter egg hunts. Family-run businesses were dissolved. Heirlooms and possessions were downsized. Spouses or children with the most pertinent information on the stories of the individual in care were deceased or absent, or didn’t know how to convey the importance of cultural touch points. (For instance, my mother said the rosary every day, yet oftentimes, her rosary went missing).
The challenge lies in maintaining rituals to help connect the individual to their past, while keeping to a schedule that keeps them well in the present.
We Are the Stories We Tell
We are first storytellers, then caregivers. In my talks, I advise families to find a way to share the narrative of the person they care for.
One year, nearing my mother’s birthday, a Sinatra impersonator had been hired to perform for the residents at her home. Recognizing my mother’s love for Mr. Sinatra and honoring her Italian heritage, several staff cooked spaghetti and meatballs for the group. I pressed pizzelles, cookies for which my mother was known, and brought them to the event. Sharing food was important to my mother, as was sharing her traditions.
Like the newspaper vendor suggested, this is how we keep “the memory of this country” or our families alive. We are all tasked with taking up the threads of stories again and again to weave them back into the individual life that remains.
Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, speaker and author of I’ll Have Some of Yours: What my mother taught me about dementia, cookies, music, the outside, and her life inside a care home (Three Arch Press), available online, and is a recipient of a 2020 National Society of Newspaper Columnists award. Visit annettejwick.com to learn more.