The Elderly between the Needs for Care and Active Ageing

5. Active Ageing among the Old Women in Vallo della Lucania

In a field study carried out under the auspices of an IRPPS-CNR project and carried out with a group of colleagues in a small town in southern Italy, Vallo della Lucania (cf. Milione, Nicolaus 2008) we investigated the experience of elderly women and men, all born in the period straddling the twenties and thirties, with the aim of understanding how they lived active ageing, once outside the labour market.

It emerged that the elderly of Vallo have a central role, even in advanced years, in family networks. Good health allowing, they live their old age independently and very industriously. From the many statements gathered, it emerges that these women, so long as they are still self-sufficient, even after the death of their spouses, generally prefer to continue living in their own homes. A sixty year old woman told us: I don’t want to go and live with my daughter, I prefer to stay in my home”. Another: “I live (only in winter) with my daughter because she needs help, she is a gynaecologist and is always very busy. In summer I go to my home, near my sister [….] and, to tell the truth,, I prefer it when I’m alone, I can go out with her, go to my cousins’ for a coffee meet the group. When I live alone I feel freer […] I can cook, do what I want, go out and come back when I want, without answering to anyone”. And another, almost ninety, says: “I am alone, my son lives next to me, but I stay alone and do everything by myself. I need nothing, and then what do I need? A little cleaning […] but do you clean every day?” From their words there emerges a determined defence of their own self-sufficiency, regardless of age. They choose to live alone with every intention of continuing to decide and act independently.

And while their strength permits it is they who offer help and support to their children, as emerges from another statement “I get up at seven because I look after my daughter’s children; one is seven and one fourteen: I must get there early. I have to get them ready for school and cook. I deal with everything. Then I go home to my house, I’ve been living alone since my husband died”. Now grandmothers, these elderly women often take on the role of part-time mothers. The double attention to domestic and non domestic work is not easy for women, and particularly for those living in the South and in small towns. In these territorial contexts, indeed, there is a chronic shortage of services capable of relieving the burden of double work. Consequently it is down to grandmothers to take the place of agencies.

The commitment and availability of grandmothers is essential to their daughters and therefore, as emerges from the statements we collected, grandmothers have a far from marginal position in family networks.

It is not by chance that their role is basically centred on caring. In old age, indeed, there exists a strong continuity running through life’s long run journey11: over time daily life routines and habits are developed which it often appears obvious to reproduce in old age. Therefore for women who have spent a large part of their life taking care of the family and the home it is “taken for granted” that they will continue to do domestic chores and carry out care tasks, supporting their daughters who often work and therefore need help.

Precisely by carrying out care tasks, indeed, they remain active longer. From our research it emerges that the active role, carried out within family circles, further reinforces the independence of these elderly women who, physically effective and active in the family, manage to maintain a wide circle of both family and extra-family relationships. However the commitment in the family circle does not take up all their time or energy. The time “free” from the needs of their children and grandchildren becomes all their own to invest in other relationships. They meet, dance, go out, act, in other words they dedicate some time to themselves. Living as active elderly women for these women also means exploring avenues of independence in extra-familiar contexts.

They are all women who appear attentive to self care, lucid and capable of talking about themselves. They have as Micheli (2002) says the ability to re-plan their self autonomy in line with events in their lives both within the family circle and beyond in wider contexts. Listening to their stories it would almost seem as if autonomy is a personal resource capable of reproducing itself through activity: the more active they are the more they remain autonomous, and the more autonomous they are the greater their ability to be active in different environments.

The men’s condition in the area we investigated, however appears more problematic. The continuance, in old age, in past roles mentioned earlier, means that men, now advanced in years, are at a disadvantage compared to women of their age who are socially involved in care work. While women, as already seen, often continue to have a central role in the family circle because the are able to supply services, the position of elderly men who cannot do likewise is different. Today’s seventy and eighty year olds are part of a generation of men that had nothing to do with domestic work. They do not maintain, therefore a strategic role within the family circle, while on the other hand they struggle to find one once they have left the labour market.

Comparing the experiences of very old men and women as they describe them, it emerges that women express a greater wellbeing than men of the same age. They are happy and participating. They continue to feel players in their lives and in the family events of their children, and all in all they do not feel old. Men, instead, especially if widowers, often live in a marginalised state, both within and outside the family. They describe their daily life as a state of forced inactivity and perceive their free time as a kind of sentence rather than as a resource.

6. Conclusions

As has been seen the difference in disability rates, the lack of improvement in health, the geographic distribution of poverty, the territorial differences in income and the lack of welfare and health services on offer in the South are all indicators demonstrating how ageing in the South is a process influenced by the concentration of many disadvantages linked to the area. Thus the elderly in the South of the country are bound by a series of bonds that condition their wellbeing. Yet their very state of socio-economic unease forces them to keep their jobs. They don’t give in to passivity, nor do they give up, but rather they act, remaining in the labour market. To all intents and purposes they are active elderly in accordance with the concept of active age as used in political debate and literature when referring precisely to the experience of those who choose to continue their work in the labour market.

However the concept of active age probably defines a more complex and varied reality. As indeed emerged from the field study carried out in Vallo della Lucania, it appears an oversimplification to relate the above concept exclusively to the continuation of work within the labour market. The elderly, above all elderly women are a necessary and precious resource since they make their energy, their time and their “know how” available to their family circle. How can we conceptualise the experience of these women if not as “active ageing”? And how many other ways do the elderly have or will they have to live their old age as players, trying out paths of self re-invention? What possible life opportunities are there for making active ageing the practice instead of only a possibility?

Open questions on the future which lead us to agree with what is written in the Green Book on Welfare: “The challenge to which we are called is not only economic, but first of all one of culture and planning”. That is to say it is a matter of reconfiguring, with a good dose of imagination and against the still widespread stereotypes on ageing, the role of the elderly, not only in the world of work but in every other sphere of social life. To do this perhaps it would be necessary to start from the interested parties, to listen to their stories to discover what they still have to give to society.

11 Palomba, Signoretti, That certain age: The ageing of women


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