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An Italian Town Full of the Elderly Wants to Feel Young Again

As the traveling brass band ended San Giovanni Lipioni’s annual holiday concert with a rendition of Wham’s “Last Christmas,” the gray-haired villagers seated in the old church of the central Italian hill town gazed dotingly at the few young children clapping to the music.

“Today there is a little movement,” Cesarina Falasco, 73, said from the back pew. “It’s lovely. It’s different.”

San Giovanni Lipioni used to be known — if at all — for the discovery in its countryside of a third-century B.C. Samnite bronze head, a rare Waldesian Evangelical community and an ancient annual pageant with pagan roots that venerates a circular cane garlanded in wild cyclamen flowers. (“It represents the female genital organ,” said a tourism official, Mattia Rossi.)

But decades of emigration have shrunk the population to 137 full-time residents, and in 2023, San Giovanni Lipioni became the town with the oldest average population in Italy, a country with one of the oldest average populations in the world. While that national designation has prompted existential angst — heightened by warnings from Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni (the country was “destined to disappear” unless it got busy) and Pope Francis (“the future of the nation is at stake”) — the town has embraced its creaky distinction as a lifeline.

A local association seized the moment to try to spur a real estate bonanza to restore and sell abandoned houses. “What do we need? People!!” reads a presentation by the association that details plans to “leverage media attention to gradually attract new visitors and resources” in 2024.

To lure new residents, the town is selling what it has in abundance: quiet, but also, the association says, a chance for immersion into an authentic small town with plenty of “unused housing stock with charming features.” There is also, the presentation points out, the Pavone mini-market selling “groceries and essential services.”

In the days after Christmas, as old men in the local bar played the card game Tressette under a television showing decades-old reruns, the town’s leaders ignored new data from the Italian National Institute of Statistics showing their home had slipped to fifth place (average age 64.2) in Italy’s old-age rankings, with a small town, Ribordone, in the northern Italian region of Piedmont (average age 65.5), taking the withered crown.

“There’s some pride in it,” Nicola Rossi, the mayor, said of being the oldest town. He cited the previous average age of 66.1 years in a country with an average of 46.4 years. But to save the town, he said, “it doesn’t make sense to do things only for the old people.”

While he is banking on a soccer field and road repair to draw young people and couples working in nearby factories, the association sees a more lucrative repopulation in selling summer houses to foreigners and other out-of-towners.

“There’s a ‘For Sale’ sign — there’s another one,” Carlo Monaco, an association official, said as he toured the town hours before the holiday concert. “This one is empty. Empty.” But so was the main square, where Marilena Grosso watched her 7-year-old daughter, Marica, run to the life-size Nativity scene. Her 18-month-old son, Pietro, scampered by old men on benches.

“At least you don’t have to worry about them getting run over,” she said. “That’s the positive side.”

Mr. Monaco climbed steep steps to the town’s drugstore, where Daniela Palomba, the 39-year-old pharmacist, said she and her husband had discovered the town on a website of available positions. She was pregnant at the time and not sure what to expect when she first arrived.

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, God,’” she said as her son, Raffaele, now 4, played behind the counter next to a selection of orthopedic shoes. She said that despite the abundance of abandoned houses, she and her husband couldn’t find a place to live in town. “No heat, and I didn’t want an old ruin.” They ended up living in an apartment attached to the nursing home.

Farther up the hill, the town’s City Hall sits across from facades adorned in “For Sale” signs. Inside, two employee clock cards sat in a metal rack that had room for 25. Alessandra Bologna, 33, a city clerk, opened a birth registry from 1852, its slanted script documenting the birth of 31 babies. In 1950, when the town had 1,000 people, the town recorded 30 births. Then she pulled out the 2022 registry showing one birth, and turned empty page after empty page. “Now,” she said, “there’s always more deaths.”

It wasn’t always this way, explained Franco Monaco, 84, who had turned the garage of his house, which also bore a “For Sale” sign, into the “Museum of Peasant Culture.” Under old hanging suitcases labeled “for emigrants” and surrounded by century-old farming equipment and other memorabilia, including wool caps and Mussolini calendars, he recalled when the town was filled with children.

“These were families that had 10, 11, 12 kids,” he said. He pointed at a doll in a steel baby crib hanging from the ceiling. “These cribs were out in the countryside,” he said. “I was born behind a stack of hay.”

People have long left the fields to work in the metalwork factory or Amazon warehouse in San Salvo, about 40 minutes east toward the Abruzzo region’s Adriatic coast, where the mayor works in a glass factory. At a lookout point, he traced the line of the Trigno river, separating the town from the Molise, the often overlooked region that villagers like to crack jokes about.

Beside him stood Ferdinando Giammichele, an investor in the Community Cooperative with ambitions of turning the local bar into a restaurant. He lived in London for years but said he returned to Italy for a more tranquil life, though he lives in Rome, where he works for an energy company. He pointed out the large white windmills spinning on former farmland to offset electrical costs and said the town’s old buildings have also been repurposed.

“This was my school,” he said, pointing at the nursing home. “Now it’s the hospice.”

As the temperature dropped, the entourage of the city’s promoters walked to Pavone, the small grocery. A red “For Sale” sign hung under a wreath and a handwritten sign on the door informed customers that the next day would be the store’s last.

Surrounded by drastic markdowns, Giovanni Grosso, 43, said he and his wife had decided to give the store a shot to bring more life to the town. They invested and lost their savings.

“It makes me cry,” he said, as his eyes watered. He called the town “all talk” about supporting young families, saying villagers wouldn’t pay a few cents more for pasta in his store. He had been offered a job, like so many before him, working construction in Bologna. “My mother lives here,” he said. “She says: ‘What are you doing here? Leave.’”

A pickup truck filled with brass horns drove by on its way up to the church, opposite a wall of death notices for locals, almost all named Rossi or Grosso or Monaco. Under statues of saints, Mr. Grosso’s son Santiago, 4, pretended to conduct the band as it played Christmas hits and the Italian national anthem. Afterward, Santiago went home to a small building next to the nursing home, where the pharmacist’s family also has their apartment. His mother was feeding his 5-month-old brother, Ettore, one of the town’s two births in 2023.

“It’s not easy for them because they are always saying, ‘I’m bored,’” Marisa Pavone, 32, said as her older son put away Monopoly pieces. She said that a pediatrician visited only once a week and that the closest nursery school closed this year because it had enrolled only three children. She had imagined injecting life by delivering pizzas or homemade sweets from the store, where she worked until the night Ettore was born, but there wasn’t much demand. She mostly made birthday cakes for old people in the nursing home.

She said the family would most likely move to Bologna for a new start, which would greatly reduce the number of children in town and shift the average age upward, giving San Giovanni Lipioni a strong chance to reclaim the title of Italy’s oldest town.

“I’m sad to close,” she said, kissing the baby on his cheek, adding: “If you try and stay and invest, you lose. We lost, and the whole town lost.”

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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