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Photo and collage: Giorgia Imbrenda.
Coronavirus

We Asked Elderly People Defying the Coronavirus Lockdown: Why?

In Italy, some senior citizens are ignoring the government's strict isolation measures. “At my age, what’s the point?” says Norma, a 94-year-old nonna.
24 March 2020, 12:43am

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

A few days ago, my mum sent me a true Boomer selfie – wrong angle, totally out of focus – to show her new work uniform. She was wearing a face mask and brandishing a D.I.Y. police baton made out of brown paper and double-sided tape. My mother works at the post office in a small town outside Bologna, Italy, and the people she needed to fight off were seniors gathered in front of the entrance before the post office opened. The baton was just a joke, by the way. She wasn't actually going to pummel any old people.

Italy has been under lockdown since the 11th of March. The government ordered people to stay at home and only go out when strictly necessary, like to buy groceries or walk the dog. These strict measures were taken to protect the elderly in a country with the second-oldest population in the world (after Japan) and currently the highest coronavirus death toll worldwide. Paradoxically, it seems like many older Italians aren't concerned about the virus, despite being most at risk.

Before the outbreak, my mum worked in BancoPosta, a unit of the Italian post office offering banking services. Now, her job consists of standing in front of the post office door with her arsenal of surgical masks and hand sanitiser to ask people if they really need to be there, and make sure people respect the security distance of at least one metre. A few times, she's actually had to call the police on people refusing to follow the rules.

Of course, many of the things these seniors are coming in for – paying bills and sending postcards – could really be sorted online. But Italy’s intergenerational digital divide is huge, and most elderly people just don't have a clue about how to handle their business online.

Unfortunately, there are also plenty of posts on Italian social media showing elderly people hanging out together in parks (when they were still open), at the supermarket or just walking around the streets. My mum has known some of the post office regulars for years, and has tried reasoning with them. The responses she got were along the lines of: “I’m not sick, so what’s the problem?” or “Who cares if I die?”

Of course, these are generalisations – some elderly people are model citizens. Like Maria Cristina, almost 70, who’s been in self-quarantine with her husband since before it was mandated by the government. She has a heart condition and is recovering from surgery, so didn’t want to risk it. “We’ve got all the supplies we need, I think we can be independent for three months,” she says.

During her period of self-quarantine, Maria Cristina has been talking to neighbours from her balcony and exchanges recipes with them. “I look at my blooming gerberas in the sun and I feel good," she says. "I only get a bit anxious at night when everything goes silent.” Her sister, on the other hand, is not doing as well. "She cries and refuses to accept that she has to stay at home,” Maria Cristina says. Her tip for avoiding loneliness is calling family members you don't normally hear from, like "aunties who are losing it a bit”.

Norma, 94, is my friend Benedetta’s grandma. She lives in the Italian countryside with her daughter and says she’s not anxious about Coronavirus. “At my age, what’s the point?” she says, adding that she misses family lunches and seeing her grandkids – without them, she feels like she’s wasting her days. But the law is the law and she’s going to respect it.

I asked psychotherapist Lorenzo Gherli from Bologna why some of our senior citizens aren’t taking the restrictions seriously. “Many of them are widowed or have seen friends die,” he explains. “They’ve lived through epidemics before but without this level of media coverage. They compare then and now and wonder why they should deprive themselves of so many things 'just' because of the virus.” They also grew up during a time when death was more accepted and normalised in society, he added.

Things get tougher for elderly people who don't have a spouse or relatives. There are a few support groups bringing them groceries, but the problem extends beyond just stocking pantries.

My own grandma is 82 and lives alone. Her daily walk involves chatting with friends at her local town square, shopping at the supermarket and dropping by my mum’s house to say hi. It’s a precious habit that's helped her maintain her great physical health, and her not-so-great mental health – she's had heavy depressive episodes in the past.

After the restrictions in Italy had started, she was still going out, despite lectures from my parents. I called her landline on the 11th of March – no response, so I called her on her cell phone and she picked up. “I’m on the toilet!” she said, while I could clearly hear traffic noise in the background. She confessed to going to the park because she “wanted to see some people. From far away, don’t worry!”

When the government published the emergency decree later that night, she consented to staying home and having her groceries delivered. But she still doesn’t understand why mum and I won't see her. Being out and about during this crisis might be irrational and irresponsible, but spending that much time alone could drive anyone crazy.