This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
Italy has one of the highest concentrations of centenarians in the world, along with France, Spain, Japan, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hong Kong and Uruguay.
Experts think the incredible stamina of people in these countries could be down to a combination of diet, strong social bonds and even spirituality. In any case, data from the Italian National Institute of Statistics show women are way more likely to make it past 100 – 84 percent of centenarians are female.
I happen to know a 100-year-old. My grandma, Alfia Distefano, was born in Sicily in 1921 and has been a centenarian since January of 2021. She shared her opinions about life, death, family and how the world has changed in the past century.
VICE: Did you ever imagine you’d live this long?
Alfia: Absolutely not. Obviously, I’ve always tried to eat healthily and exercise a lot. I think I only realised I’d made it while I was blowing out my birthday candles.
What was the best decade of the past 100 years? And the worst?
The worst was certainly the Second World War. My brothers left for the front and I was left alone with my mother and father. My dad was blind, so he wasn’t sent off to war. We moved to the countryside because it was less likely to be bombed, but it still happened sometimes. Once, there was an air raid on our area and we had to flee. We hid in a cave with some others. It was terrible – many people died while seeking shelter. I remember how happy I was when the Americans came to free us, but I was also worried about my brothers who hadn’t returned yet. [Both eventually did.]
I’ve lived through many beautiful decades, too. All in all, I’ve had a good, full life. Happy moments happen even during the hardest times.
How many of your loved ones have died?
It’d be easier to tell you who is left, actually. Every single loss was different – the death of my son was the hardest. He died when he was five, it was really heartbreaking. I thought my life had ended with him. I realised it hadn’t when I gave birth to my second child. There was this new life in front of me and it deserved all the love I could give it.
In this sense, I’ve always been lucky. Every time I lost someone, a new life came to the world, reminding me I had to be strong. This also happened when my husband passed in 1992. My first grandson had just turned one – it wasn’t time for self-pity.
Are you afraid of death?
I have been in the past, and I still am for the people I love. When you’re this old, though, you learn to see death as both fair and inevitable. Death is only really scary when it’s premature.
How much has the world changed in the last 100 years?
It has changed so much I don't even know how to describe it. I do think I value these changes more because I know how life was before. When I was young, we didn’t have what we have now – and I’m not just talking about computers or smartphones. We didn’t have refrigerators, the food was stored inside wells or in the cellar. We had no running water.
Seeing all this change is beautiful. Today, technology is so advanced I don’t even understand it. I’m filled with joy thinking that I can see my nephew even though he’s on the other side of Italy.
How have women’s lives changed over the years?
As a child, my father would often say I should have been a boy. He’d say my intelligence was “wasted”, since women’s main concerns were looking after the house and the kids. It wasn’t conceivable for a woman to aspire to anything different.
Now, my niece can do whatever she wants and be who she wants to be. It's beautiful, even though I must admit I would also find that scary.
Nowadays, many couples meet on dating apps. How was dating when you were young?
Ah, it was very different. First of all, we were always at home. You’d only get a chance to go out for the Sunday mass, for the town fairs or the theatre. And you’d always have a family member with you.
If a guy noticed you, he’d ask around about you, then he’d send a relative to your house or ask a matchmaker to get involved. Matchmakers were middle-men who would arrange the marriage with the girl’s family for a fee. If the family approved of the suitor, they would usually ask if the girl was OK with it too. Then the engagement would be official and the boy could come visit, but always in the presence of the whole family and never sitting too close. You basically didn't really know your boyfriend until you married him.
Before the wedding, all I knew about my husband was that he was handsome, a hard-worker and from a good family. We didn’t even know what sex was. Men knew about it because it was explained to them, but us women would get married without knowing what was going to happen.
How do you spend your days now?
For the past couple of years I haven’t been able to do much. I get tired easily and I’m a bit like an autumn leaf – I could fall at any moment. I do fall sometimes, but if I stop doing the things that make me happy I’m sure I will die. For example, I really enjoy gardening, something that my anxious relatives consider too dangerous. I take care of the flowers, sunbathe and chat with the neighbours.
Everyone in my neighbourhood loves me. Actually, it’s sad we can’t have a proper chat now because of the pandemic. I’m hard of hearing, so keeping my distance makes talking more difficult.
Do you think there is life after death?
I am a woman of faith, so yes. In my heart, I am sure that there is something after death, that I’ll be able to embrace the people I have lost, and at the same time rejoice in the achievements of those who remain.
In your opinion, how long is a “good life”?
Certainly not as long as mine. Despite my age, my mind is still clear – but not everyone is this lucky. I want to do 1,000 things and my body can't keep up with me. I often realise that I’ve put too much strain on it when it’s too late. Then, in the evening, I’m in so much pain. I’ve also become totally dependent on others – without my son and daughter-in-law, I would have died a long time ago. Let’s say 95 seems reasonable to me, but it’s different for everyone.