SAN POLO DEI CAVALIERI, ITALY — Seven cats and a modest book collection are all that 79-year-old Giorgio Angelozzi has for company on most days.
High up in the hills east of Rome, the retired teacher lives in a humble two-room flat overlooking a valley of rolling olive groves. The house is tidy, except for a layer of cat fluff that reappears after the cleaning lady's weekly visit. In a side cabinet sit Greek dictionaries and works by Horace and Pliny.
Things are quiet, too quiet.
After 12 years alone since the death of his wife, this summer Mr. Angelozzi became so desperate for human contact that he put himself up for adoption. In a newspaper classified, he offered to pay 500 euros to live with a family and teach their children.
"The days went by and I used to count," he says. "There were some days when I counted zero. I had not said a word all day."
Angelozzi's story has triggered a nationwide attack of guilt and public debate over how best to care for the elderly. While families and officials try new solutions, Angelozzi took matters into his own hands. After all, he wasn't getting any younger - and neither is Italy, which has the world's oldest population.
A recent report from the research group Censis said 49.1 percent of Italy's over-65s, roughly 6 million in a country of almost 60 million, are living alone.
The days of pew-length Italian families are long gone. In recent decades, families have broken up in search of work. Divorce and separation have risen steadily, and working parents have had fewer children, making Italy's birth-rate one of the world's lowest.
"In the past, grandparents have always had a major role to play in the traditional large Italian family model," says Roberto Menotti, research fellow at the Aspen Institute in Rome. "There was always a mutual commitment. Families needed grandparents; they relied on them to keep things going. Now some meet only twice a year, not once a week."
Angelozzi has not spoken to his 53-year-old aid-worker daughter since Easter, when she rang from Afghanistan.
Nor does he have much contact with neighbors. Upon retiring, he moved from Rome to a dead-end road on the edge of town. The difficult walk up and down the hill, as well as an aversion to "meaningless conversations" with people at church or in the public square, kept him an outsider in the village.
He made one monthly outing, a taxi ride to Tivoli for groceries, where he would stock up on sausages and 90 tins of cat food. On his 1,400 euros ($1,700) pension, Angelozzi ate sparsely, drinking Nescafe at the end of the month when he could not afford real coffee.
In Rome, commercial services are emerging to step in where the state and the family are absent.
Senior Sitters, the first agency of its kind in Italy, employs a team of qualified "companions," hireable for 10 euros an hour, to cook, clean, and dress hair at home, but mostly to take wobbly pensioners shopping, to the cinema, to see friends, and even on vacation.
"Italy needs Senior Sitters as much as it does baby sitters, if not more," said Rosa Anna Felici, who set up the agency in January this year. "The elderly are like children. They can't or don't dare go out alone. But if we leave them shut in their homes, it's not much of a life."
The agency employed roughly 40 sitters during August, when many families booked their services to cover holiday periods. Families are more aware of the threat that summer heat poses to their elderly loved ones. As in France, thousands of Italy's pensioners died during the heat wave of 2003 while many of their relatives were away on vacation.
This summer, Italy's health minister suggested the elderly should be brought to supermarkets and cinemas to cool down and escape their isolation during the hottest months. But resources for the elderly are scarce on the local level, and the proposal met widespread criticism.
Several local governments have launched advertising campaigns in local newspapers, offering to provide a kind of "dating service" to hook up isolated seniors with large families needing help at home.
"Local governments are realizing that there is a supply and demand that can be made to match," Menotti says. "Without spending large amounts of money, local authorities can play the middleman, the matchmaker."
Italy's old folks are the fastest growing sector of its population. At 19.1 percent this year, roughly one Italian in five is over 65. The independent research agency Eurispes estimates that by 2026, they will number almost 15 million in 2026 and by 2051, 18 million. Almost 1 in 3 Italians will be a pensioner.
But the elderly have yet to wield much political clout.
"Until now, governments have tended to ignore pensioners," says Carlo Fatuzzo, Italy's first and, so far, Europe's only member of a "Pensioners' Party" to have won a seat in the European parliament. "But pensioners are beginning to take hold of the power that strength in numbers gives them."
As for Angelozzi, the future is bright. Within days of his SOS, scores of letters addressed to 'Il Professore' began arriving at his door. Families across Italy and as far away as New Zealand, Canada, and Argentina offered to rescue the old man from his solitude.
This week he plans to take the first airplane ride of his life to meet his potential new family: a couple in northern Italy who have one teenage son. They have offered him the use of an independent flat and waived his offer of payment. He fell for the sound of the mother's voice on the phone. "When I hear that voice," he says, gently closing his eyes and smiling, "it feels so good, like the way my cats feel when I stroke their heads."