CREMONA, Italy – In one of the most affected parts of the aging Western nation, the coronavirus has clouded a generation in a matter of weeks. It destroyed more than 100 of the 400 residents of the local nursing home. This prompted the city to urgently order eight refrigerated trailers to store the bodies. It created a horrific landscape of ambulances running into the private homes of the elderly who were dying 400% above normal.
“The pain was excruciating,” said Gilberto Anelli, 82, who lost his wife of 57 years and now starts talking to his photos every morning.
As a global phenomenon, the coronavirus epidemic has killed almost every human being. But in Europe, the country’s first major epicenter, a year of personal data shows how the virus has focused its attacks on an already vulnerable age group, causing a historic increase in elderly mortality.
During all this time, the measures taken to protect the safety of the elderly were erected around them. Survivors in places like Cremona are trying to cope with a mass death that has also cut off many, depressed and aimless.
Not every old country has been destroyed. Japan Aponia is one of the most famous. And some countries with younger populations, including the United States, have been hit hard by mismanagement and widespread health problems. But in Italy, say health experts, demographics multiply the death toll to close to 100,000, the highest in any other country.
In this way the virus was distinguished from other cataclysms, including the wars of 1918. The flu epidemic, which caused great casualties among young people. In many European countries, the average victim of COVID-19 was over 80 years old. In Italy, the average is 83, and the generation split is particularly severe. Even in the face of the virus, the death toll of more than 50 million Italians has dropped from previous years, with people being kept out of the way by roadblocks. But the overall mortality rate in the country still rose by about 15%.
People over the age of 80, a group that accounts for 7% of Italy’s population, have so far accounted for 60% of COVID-19 deaths.
“It was just devastating,” said Emilio Tanzi, director of the Cremona Nursing Home, which once had 24 bodies. A maximum of nine are kept in its morgue.
One of the survivors, 86-year-old Fulvio Signori, said he was mostly surrounded by friends before the epidemic. After dinner, they gathered in his room as he played old recordings of his own music.
Retired singer Signori has spent his career on cruise ships, wearing tight pants and colorful tops. He traveled the world 17 times, he said. He met Jacqueline Aklin Kennedy. He spent several months in Las Vegas in the 1980s, a city he described as “full of smiles and evil.”
In the nursery, his permanent audience before the epidemic, the support network consisted of a retired electrician, a retired bank employee, and a retired bus driver.
“They all died within a month,” he said.
He said that now, when he plays his music, he sometimes raises his voice, hoping that someone can hear him in another room.
A year later, when the virus seemed to be somewhere, the key to survival was to create its own pain. Isolation from everyone, including children, grandchildren and friends. Destroyed in March last year, Cremona avoided a similar catastrophic second wave, in part because many of the oldest citizens decided to defend themselves. But the deep cost of that strategy has become apparent in recent weeks as people over the age of 80, who for some took their first steps from house to apartment, reached the sixth-floor hospital, “Anti-Cancer Vaccine.” »
In the waiting rooms, before being hired, these people described a year that gradually diminished the hopes of the last stage of their lives. Someone said that his existence had become “nothingness”. Another said he was “completely locked in the house.” For some, the closest regular contact with others came through television. A man who did not leave his home after the flu came to the hospital to even talk. His son, who was accompanying him, said that the father was clear, but he was not used to other people.
Audilia Ruggeri, 93, said she would lose her social “reference point” at the start of the epidemic when the local senior center closed. It was a place where he would see his friends for a few hours, drink coffee, play card games. He tried to replace those gatherings with long phone calls, but Ruggeri said the phone only worked “at one point” and the center showed no signs of reopening.
Weeks ago, she started crying more often. Ruggeri said it was an accumulation of boredom and sadness. His daughter temporarily moved to stop the slide.
“I think I just obeyed,” Ruggeri said.
In Cremona, even the first few doses of the vaccine for the elderly do not promote the joy and optimism of the rest of the world. Two dozen people over the age of 80, speaking at a hospital vaccination clinic, described their vision for what might be next with a kind of tired plane. It would be nice to see a family more regularly. The same goes for small trips to the mountains or the beach. But the vaccination campaign is slow in Italy and throughout Europe. Only a quarter of Italians aged 80 and over have received at least the first dose, and the vast majority of young people are nowhere near eligible. Slow normal return is costly for seniors who have less time to wait.
87-year-old Okonda Brunelli, a former Swiss airline employee, said she was “rescued” as a widow for 20 years, staying active by communicating, volunteering and visiting cancer patients at home.
These were the things that made life worthwhile, these were the things that stopped it.
“This has traveled my world,” he said of the epidemic. “We are looking at each other now, we are in the middle of nowhere.”
Gil Ilberto Anelli has always told family members that he would rather die than live without Gabriella, his first և only partner, whom he would meet when they were both teenagers. Last March, COVID-19 hospitalized and killed him within a week. It seemed that the disease was ready to kill him, Aneli. He spent 57 days in the hospital, and when he began to breathe on his own again, he realized that he was going to survive, he felt deeper suffering.
He had to find out without her life.
“Hell,” Anelli called it.
At the rehabilitation clinic, he told the doctor that he was afraid to enter the “tunnel of grief” and never leave. After his release, he resumed life not in his old home, but in his new home, in the suburban home of his daughter and son-in-law. Anelli portrayed himself as a “zombie” in those early weeks, almost unable to speak.
“I would never laugh,” said Anelli. “I would not move. I was in an armchair or sofa. I was looking at the floor, thinking about my wife. “
He thought of all that he had lost. He and Gabriela were so attached to each other that he never saw much help in making friends. If one went to the grocery store, the other also came. They spent summers along the Adriatic coast for several weeks on cruise ships. Memories that came back to Anelli when she started thinking about why she “left” him.
He spent three sessions with a psychiatrist, and the antidepressants he prescribed helped him sleep and rest.
But he told her to find new joys, it was more difficult. He no longer liked to read; he was afraid that any page of the novel might arouse his wife’s memory. He had no interest in puzzles or crossword puzzles. Travel was also difficult. He has not been vaccinated yet.
The only things he would do were his body, not his mind. As the months passed, he taught himself to bake and bake bread with a cast iron pan. He also started with extended walks. He has not left his family property since October, but it is large, containing a domestic violence factory that produces double-glazed windows.
Every afternoon after the workers leave, it becomes his personal rehabilitation area.
His training is always the same. They last one hour and eight minutes. Wear worn leather loafers. He counts his turns, going up and down the workstations, passing the products marked with serial numbers. His heavy breathing is the only noise.
“It is 110 meters from one end to the other,” he said.
Almost a year after Gabriella’s death, this is what Anelli calls her new “routine”. Erc yesterday at 4 p.m. Exercise on the 30th – pure mind. Tablets before bedtime. Then in the morning, as he sits in an armchair, he looks at a picture of his wife, a vessel containing her ashes, and tells her about her dreams she just had, bread, and life without her.
“I am transforming my grief,” said Anelli. “I do not think it will ever disappear.”