Italian family reaches out and adopts a granddad

The Riva family often ate dinner with the TV on. Usually, it was just for background noise. But one night in August they stopped mid-mouthful and turned the volume up.

A neat, dignified-looking bearded man was on a chat show describing how lonely he was. He was making a nationwide appeal for a family to adopt him.

"I looked at my husband, and I looked at the children," says Marlena Riva, sipping tea at the same kitchen table on an autumn evening. 'What do you think?' I found myself saying. 'Would you like a new grandfather?'

"We hardly hesitated," she continues. "It seemed the obvious thing to do. We wrote a letter straightaway to say who we were and what we had to offer. But we tried not to get the children's hopes up too much. I kept telling them there was no chance he would pick us. We didn't want them to be disappointed."

Months later, Giorgio Angelozzi has not disappointed. He has become a grandfather to her children, a father to her husband, Elio, and a friend to her.

"I've turned a new page," he says, busying himself with teacups from the sink to the table and offering a plate of biscuits around. "I recommend other lonely old people try getting adopted."

Mr. Angelozzi is an old man, but he seems as excited by his new life, like a little boy at Christmas.

Until early October he had no family. His wife had died, his only daughter had moved abroad, he had lost touch with his sister after an inheritance feud.

All he had for company were seven village cats and a spectacular view across the countryside east of Rome.

He's now happily given up his modest hermit-like home for the Rivas' large family home, amid the urban sprawl around Milan with snow-capped Alps in the distance. Instead of tinned food he savors Marlena Riva's home cooking.

His old wool pullover matted with cat fluff has been cleaned. And he was encouraged by the support his family gave him to undertake an eye operation that he had never dared to pursue alone. "I've already buried my old life," he says, beaming after showing me around his new home.

"Above all, I am enjoying the female presence," he says, with a sparkle in his eyes.

He rises early in the mornings to catch Marlena before she heads out to work. He hovers by the door when she's due home. He helps her in the kitchen. And he talks to her for hours.

"It's a kind of childish love. I feel like I am alive again," he says, standing behind Marlena at the kitchen table, stroking her blond hair fondly. "I am eating proper food. I have people to talk to. Marlena listens to me as if she's drinking from a cup."

If anything, it is pretty hard to stop Angelozzi talking, he says.

His new grandchildren, Mateusz, 18, and Dagmara, 15, say that Angelozzi has filled a gap - and brightened a time of difficult news for their family.

Elio is battling cancer. And the family has lost several close relatives in recent months. Their only biological grandparent is Marlena's mother, who lives in Poland.

"It feels normal to have a new grandfather around," says Mateusz. "We have felt for a while that our family is too small."

In the space of a month, the Rivas have settled Angelozzi into their empty basement granny flat and begun to call him "Nonno" (granddad).

He is no longer the wilting plant he described himself as after 12 years of solitude in his drab hilltop home near Rome. He has moved to a bright, clean house, built by his new "son," retired builder Elio Riva.

Angelozzi is adjusting to a home filled with elegant furniture - and the tinny sounds escaping from his grandchildren's headphones as they surf the Internet.

The Rivas have not only acquired a grandfather, but something of a celebrity.

The evening Marlena arrived home with Angelozzi, they were met at the airport by a mob of flashing cameras and shouting reporters. They found the mayor of Spirano in their living room, with hordes of jostling journalists, offering the old man a warm welcome to the village.

"My friends were all amazed when they saw us on TV," says Mateusz. "They keep asking now for updates on how it's going. It's as if we've become a sort of public experiment."

Neighbors are bemused. In a country where many families are tempted to outsource the demands of caring for grandparents to elderly homes, it's hard to believe anyone could choose to take an abandoned grandparent in.

But local authorities in several Italian regions, struggling to support the country's booming pensioner generation, have begun matchmaking programs to put 60-somethings in touch with working families whose grandparents have died or live too far away. They hope the "rent-a-gran" system could meet mutual needs for company, baby-sitting, and housekeeping services without cash exchanging hands.

"People tell me they could never be so brave," says Marlena. "I don't see what all the fuss is about. We were missing a generation in our family. He was missing a family. We know he is old and he may need a lot of care in future. But we'll come to that when it happens. For us, 'il nonno' has been the best thing that could have happened."

The Rivas' experiment is still in its early stages. But so far, all parties are convinced they are better off now than they were before.

Angelozzi has hardly looked back. "My last night in the old life, I slept deeply like the Prince of Condé the night before the Battle of Waterloo. In the first few days, the only thing I worried about was the cats," he says. "We left them behind because I couldn't bring them in the airplane."

But when Elio drove Angelozzi down half the length of Italy to bring his feline companions up to Italy's industrial north, they hissed and scratched and backed out of their basket.

"I've forgotten them now," says Angelozzi, a little bitter. "I fed them and stroked them on my lap. But you know, they never cared. Cats don't really care."

But the cats followed their former owner's example.

His departure inspired villagers in his home town of San Polo dei Cavalieri to form an animal rights committee which has adopted the abandoned cats, ensuring they won't be forced to move north against their will.

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