Italy, the badante, immigration, and the elderly

Italy gets some things right. It's health system is better than the NHS. It sometimes shows some interesting ideas on immigration. And it has some quirky but successful ideas on treating the elderly well

Passeggiata before dinner
Tim Hedges
On 10 July 2015 10:20

Josef is 26, tall, good looking. He dwarfs Gianni, who at 82 does not walk as straight as he used to, and you might have supposed they were grandfather and grandson. However the younger man with the foreign sounding name is old Gianni’s carer.

Josef will not talk about how he got here. He was born in Kosovo and wanted to make a new life away from the ruins of his homeland and his dead relatives. There is work in Italy’s black economy, particularly in summer, but it was not for him.

You are always on the run from the authorities and at the mercy of unscrupulous employers. So he became a badante.

The name derives from the traditional Italian pre dinner stroll, the passeggiata. The young carers walk their charges up and down the main street, like swimmers in a swimming bath. This evening Gianni will meet some friends to play cards and Josef will have some time off, perhaps to talk to the local girls.

Josef is not a nurse. He merely takes the difficulties out of Gianni’s life. He helps him to dress, does the shopping, cooks a bit, takes him out.

The badante system seems to work for everyone involved. The deal for Josef is tough but worthwhile. He has a roof over his head, his meals paid for and a small amount of money. He is not drifting, but lives in a community where he is known (as Giuseppe).

And if he can stick the crotchety old devil for two years his position in Italy will be completely regularised: he will have his residence card, his health card, and be able to open a bank account. He will be able to get a job with paid holidays and qualify for the state pension.

For Gianni he gets pretty well full time care, from someone eager to fit in and determined not to put a foot wrong in his new country. The Health Service subsidises a fair bit of the €800 a month cost.

For the state, they know who Josef is, where he is and what he is doing. For a small sum they know that Gianni is being looked after, without having to devote the time of an expensive professional for simple tasks such as dressing him. Josef will turn into a model citizen and pay more in taxes than he would if he had joined the vast army of illicit workers.

Britain’s system is of course different, with long established ethnic groups in specific areas which offer help to new arrivals. But this causes ghettoisation, whereas the badante system encourages dispersal the badante has to go where he is posted.

Of course, a big difference in Italy’s treatment of the elderly is that it has close knit family units, where young people expect to look after parents and grandparents.

But it is not just that which makes Italy a far better place to be old. Another difference is the siting of old people’s homes. The Italians put them bang in the centre of the town so the aged feel they are a part of what is going on. We tend to hide them away, as if we were ashamed of the elderly.

As with the health service in an article a few weeks ago, I am not suggesting Italy’s answers are perfect, only that it behoves us to look at other ideas, perhaps copy them, perhaps develop them.

The Italians live a fair bit longer than we do. It may be the olive oil, or it may be that they have a strategy for dealing with old age, and we do not.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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