The world is getting old. Life expectancy at birth in Italy is 79.2 years for men and 84.6 years for women. In Japan it is 80.5 years for men and 87.4 years for women. In Europe the figures are slightly under those for Italy which, along with Japan, represents the most advanced country in the modern conquest for a longer life span. Every year the number of people over 65 in the world increases at the pace of one million per month. There are now more than 700 million people in the wealthiest countries: the longest lives. Even in the African continent, where life expectancy is limited by AIDS, wars, malnutrition and shortages of clean water and efficient health systems, we are witnessing an increase in the percentage of elderly people in the overall population.
The most economically advanced countries have not found an answer for dealing with the additional years, which threaten to trigger competition and conflict between the old and new generations, oppressive isolation and loneliness, as well as a costly burden on health systems in the absence of a project and culture capable of making the most, in an innovative fashion, of “the extra years”.
The Pope has chosen to visit an innovative experience in the field of services for the aged, part of a 30-year-long effort on the part of the Community of Sant’Egidio to improve the condition of the elderly in Rome and in the world on the occasion of the European Year of Active Aging and of Solidarity Between Generations. A special occasion. For a global message which satisfies a profound need of our times.
THE POPE’S VISIT
The Pope will start his visit to the “Long Live the Elderly” Home for the Aged in Rome, in Via Nicola Fabrizi 2, on the Gianicolo hill, at 11:00 AM. He will first meet with some elderly Haitian refugees and a delegation from the Community of Sant’Egidio. The visit starts in the home for both self-sufficient and not self-sufficient people, on the top floor, which represents a model for family-like assistance and health care 24 hours a day. Afterwards, Benedict the XVI will visit the elderly residents of the mini-appartments of the structure, which have the benefit of common services and the protection, in case of need, of the care furnished in the rest of the Home.
In the garden inside the structure the Pope will meet with all the residents of the structure and will make an address, which will be aired outside on a large screen. Benedict XVI was invited to the Home in an informal manner by some of the elderly guests of the structure created by the Community of Sant’Egidio. The visit will end at 12 noon.
The Community of Sant’Egidio’s service for the aged in Rome
The Community of Sant’Egidio has been close to the elderly population since the beginning, in the 1970’s: It met them in the outer suburbs and the historic center of Rome. The seniors appeared to be sick of loneliness, asking for company and support. There was an immediate attraction, an understanding of their problems. Since then the friendship continued through the years with loyalty, not only in Rome and the rest of Italy, but in all countries in the North and South of the world where the Community is present. Today in Rome, service to the elderly reaches 18,000 people, cared for by 800 volunteers. There are also 100 small communities of solidarity and friendship among the elderly. The elderly, with their prayers, represent a strong source of support for the Church and all of the people who are suffering.
Friendship between young and old
All over the world the number of elderly people is on the rise, but their longevity, in many parts of the world, is viewed with growing concern, to the point of taking on the form of a virtual generational conflict. “Reconciliation” between different generations is needed: youth and adults need the elderly and vice versa. A society that has no room for the elderly is inhuman. That is why the Community in Rome involves hundreds of teenagers and young adults in meetings with the elderly, including visits to the institutes where many older people live. These meetings help the youth discover that longevity is one of the best results of our times and help the elderly understand that there is a place for them in our society because they still have a lot to give in terms of affection, friendship and a sense of life.
Helping the elderly to live at home
A decisive undertaking. In large cities, isolation, the diminishing size of households and the elevated cost of rent all contribute to the estrangement of the eldest at the first sign of difficulty. Institutionalizing seniors sometimes appears to be the only possible and reasonable solution, but it is an arrangement that in many cases does not respect the desire of the elderly, who suffer from separation from the family environment, the objects and the memories of their homes. An important aspect of the Community’s effort consists in supporting the families of the elderly, which often find themselves unprepared and disoriented in the face of disease and of the loss of independence on the part of older relatives. Another important part of the service is building a network of relationships for seniors with neighbours, friends and the local parish, all resources for the ability to continue living at home.. It is a service of monitoring and preventing emergencies - like heat waves, intense cold spells, falling down – and of strengthening the support system. These efforts reach all residents over 75 in the Trastevere, Testaccio and Esquilino districts and involve in the so-called “network of proximity” over 600 volunteers, doctors, doormen, shop keepers, neighbours and family care-givers. This way social isolation is lessened to a large degree. Statistics show a lower mortality rate in the senior populations of these three Roman neighbourhoods, thus proving that at home you live better and longer.
Visits to the elderly in institutions
Living in a geriatric structure often means experiencing isolation and abandonment, which lessens the desire to live. The mortality rate is in fact four times higher in such institutions. The Community of Sant’Egidio is present in hundreds of institutional homes for the aged in Italy, Europe and on other continents with a service of companionship, animation and pastoral care.
Friendly and assiduous companionship helps the elderly maintain relations with the outside world and preserve the integrity of their personality. The presence of the Community in the institutes for the aged provides a stimulus and incentive for these structures to perform their jobs better.
New living arrangements proposed by the Community of Sant’Egidio
Staying at home is impossible for some seniors because of reduced autonomy, the loss of lodging because of family quarrels and economic hardship. In this perspective, in order to reduce the number of admissions to mega-structures, the Community has implemented a number of alternative solutions, like experiences in co-housing which, in time, have paved the way for an articulated model for responding to the housing needs of the senior population: co-habitation, protected condominiums, family-like homes. In Rome alone there are more than 300 seniors housed in these various types of living arrangements.
Seniors living together
There are seniors who are alone and have a home but do not have their health and are no longer completely self-sufficient, others who have a pension income but cannot afford the rent for an apartment, others that enjoy good health but are devoid of financial means. The Community of Sant’Egidio helps to get them together and accompanies them on the road to cohabitation, thereby enabling them to avoid inevitable institutionalization.
The elderly pool their economic and housing resources, living in homes that assure better living conditions. The homes are located in the center of the city, not far from the things that seniors need: stores, fresh markets, churches. These experiences receive the aid of younger members of the Community. They also represent an occasion for cooperation and integration between generations. Such ventures have expanded in the last two years in Rome in order to respond to worsening economic conditions in several different sections of the city, from Ostia to Tufello, from Garbatella to Torrenova. 150 seniors are cared for this way.
There are entire buildings of studio apartments (40-60 square meters each) for one or two people, which are devoted to seniors who are self-sufficient but fragile from a housing point of view (homeless, evicted or completely alone). The guests are offered common services and support for problems of daily living. It is a way of continuing to live at home, with protection. More than 100 seniors are accommodated in Community protected condominiums.
Structures for seniors with reduced autonomy who can no longer stay home for a lack of housing, sufficient economic resources or meaningful inter-personal relations. The seniors live in a family-like home, furnished with taste: the guests are encouraged to bring their own furniture. The absence of architectural barriers and the presence of numerous auxiliaries help preserve autonomy.
Above all, these homes offer a humane relational life made up of exchanges with other generations, like a re-constituted family. They restore a sense of life and at the same time assure high-quality care. These family homes accommodate 50 seniors in Rome.
The Pope’s visit to the “Long Live the Elderly” home at Via Nicola Fabrizi 2, on the Gianicolo hill
The “Long Live the Elderly” home on Via Nicola Fabrizi, which was inaugurated in January 2009 and now accommodates 28 seniors, is a particularly successful expression of a housing arrangement that combines a family home (for non self-sufficient guests as well) with a protected condominium. Thus the guests of the studio apartments can have, aside from other services, a permanent relationship with the care-givers of the family home on duty 24 hours a day.