Keeping the Elderly Alive: Global Entanglements and Embodied Practices in Long-Term Care in Southeast Italy




care work, elderly, dementia, migration, Italy, badanti


This article explores the success of the “migrant in the family” model of care for the elderly in southeast Italy and the mechanisms that bond the caregivers and their patients in a mutual dependency. I describe this model as a meeting place between endurance and vulnerability, and between the fragility of the elderly and the fragility of most of the women who work as migrant care workers. I argue that migrant live-in care work for the elderly is a combination of attentive practice and detachment in completion to the current description of care work as ritual and as tinkering and adaptation. In a broader perspective, the article shows that the economic needs in poorer regions of the world manifest in the commitment and determination to keep the elderly alive in Italy. This article reports findings from long-term ethnographic research among 34 migrant domestic care workers and 24 Italian employers in a medium-sized town in Italy. The article illustrates the findings by means of three case studies and engages with the existing literature on person-centered care in patients with dementia, biopolitics, and the global political economy of migration for work in the field of care. Migrant work for the elderly is crucial for a general understanding of social reproduction in Italy and in many other global contexts.

Author Biography

Gabriela Nicolescu, Goldsmiths College

Department of Anthropology Post-doctoral Researcher and Associate Lecturer


ASA [Association of Social Anthropologists in the UK’s Ethical Guidelines], 1999. Available at: [Accessed on 23 June 2009].

Aulino, Felicity. 2016. ‘Rituals of care for the elderly in northern Thailand: Merit, morality, and the everyday of long-term care.’ American Ethnologist, 43(1): 91-102.

Ban, Cornel. 2012. ‘Economic Transnationalism and its Ambiguities: The Case of Romanian Migration to Italy.’ In International Migration, 50(6): 129-149.

Bettio, Francesca, Simonazzi, Annamaria, and Paola Villa.2006. ‘Change in care regimes and female migration: the ‘care drain’ in the Mediterranean.’ In Journal of European Social Policy, 16(3): 271-285.

Biehl, João G. 2011. ‘Homo Economicus and Life Markets.’ In Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 25(2): 278-284.

Biehl, João G. 2012. ‘Care and Disregard.’ In Fassin Didier, ed., A Companion to Moral Anthropology, pp: 242-263. Wiley-Blackwell.

Boccagni, Paolo. 2016. ‘Searching for Well-being in Care Work Migration: Constructions, Practices and Displacements among Immigrant Women in Italy.’ In Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State and Society, 23(2): 284-306.

Buch, Elana. D. 2014. ‘Troubling gifts of care: vulnerable persons and threatening exchanges in Chicago's home care industry.’ Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 28(4): 599-615.

Buch, Elana D. 2015. ‘Anthropology of aging and care.’ In Annual Review of Anthropology, 44: 277-293.

Carsten, Janet. 1995. ‘The Substance of Kinship and the Heat of the Hearth: Feeding, Personhood, and Relatedness among Malays in Pulau Langkawi.’ American Ethnologist, 22(2): 223-241.

Catanzaro, Raimondo and Asher Colombo, 2004. ‘Nazionalita, genere e classe nel nuovo lavoro domestico.’ In Raimondo Catanzaro and Asher Colombo, eds., Badanti & Co. Il lavoro domestico straniero in Italia, pp 7-54. Il Mulino.

Crafts, Nicholas, and Marco Magnani. 2011. ‘The golden age and the second globalization in Italy.’ Available at: [Accessed 12 July 2018].

Danely, Jason. 2015. Learning Compassion: Everyday Ethics among Japanese Carers. Available at: [Accessed 16 November 2018].

----. 2014. Aging and Loss: Mourning and Maturity in Contemporary Japan. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Das, Veena. 2007. Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. Berkeley: University of California Press

Deneva, Neda. 2012. ‘Transnational Aging Carers: On Transformation of Kinship and Citizenship in the Context of Migration among Bulgarian Muslims in Spain‘ In Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society, 19(1): 105-128.

Ducey, Ariel. 2010. ‘Technologies of caring labour. From objects to affect.’ In Boris, Eileen and Rhacel Salazar Parrenas (eds.) Intimate Labours: cultures, technologies and the politics of care, pp: 18-32. Stanford University Press.

Degiuli, Francesca. 2010. ‘The Burden of long-term care: how Italian family care-givers become employers.’ In Aging and Society, 30(5): 755-777.

De Martino, Ernesto. 2013 [1961]. La Terra del Rimorso [The Land of Sorrow/ Double Bite] Milano: Il Saggiatore.

Fassin, Didier, Frederic Le Marcis, Todd Lethata, João Biehl, Deborah James, Rachel Jewkes, Bogumil Jewsiewicki et al. 2008. ‘Life & times of Magda A: Telling a story of violence in South Africa.’ In Current Anthropology, 49(2): 225-246.

Federici, Sara. 2007. “On Elder Care” in Art + Care: Future, pp. 13-26. Serpentine Gallery: London.

Fedyuk, Olena. 2012. ‘Images of transnational motherhood: the role of photographs in measuring time and maintaining connections between Ukraine and Italy.’ In Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 38(2): 279-300.

Foucault, Michel. 2008. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Galt, Anthony. 1991. Far from the Church Bells: Settlement and Society in an Apulian Town. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Glucksmann, Miriam and Dawn Lyon. 2006. ‘Configurations of Care Work: Paid and Unpaid Elder care in Italy and the Netherlands.’ In Sociological Research Online, 11(2): 1-15.

Hendriks, R. 2012. ‘Tackling indifference – clowning, dementia, and the articulation of a sensitive body.’ In Medical Anthropology, 31:459–76.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2000. ‘Global Care Chains and Emotional Surplus Value.’ In Will Hutton and Anthony Giddens, eds., On the edge: living with global capitalism, pp: 130-146. London: Jonathan Cape.

Hugman, Richard, and Jo Campling. 1994. Ageing and the care of older people in Europe. Hampshire: Macmillan Press.

Ibarra, María de la Luz. 2000. ‘Mexican Immigrant Women and the New Domestic Labor.’ In Human Organization, 59(4): 452-464.

INS [Institutul Naţional de Statisticǎ]. 2014. Migrația Internațională a României. Raport. Retrieved from:, on 03 March 2017.

Kaneff, Deema and Frances Pine (eds). 2011. Global Connections and Emerging Inequalities in Europe: Perspectives on Poverty and Transnational Migration. London: Anthem Press.

Kitwood, Thomas Marris, and T. M. Kitwood. 1997. Dementia reconsidered: The person comes first. Vol. 20. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Kleinman A. 2009. ‘Caregiving: the odyssey of becoming more human.’ In Lancet 373: 292-294.

Kontos, Pia. 2006. ‘Embodied Selfhood: An Ethnographic Exploration of Alzheimer’s Disease’ In A. Leibing and L. Cohen (eds.) Thinking about Dementia: Culture, Loss, and the Anthropology of Senility, pp: 195-217. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

----. 2005. ‘Embodied selfhood in Alzheimer’s disease: Rethinking person-centred care.’ In Dementia, 4 (4): 553-570.

Lyberaki, Antigone.2008. ‘“Deae ex Machina”: migrant women, care work and women’s employment in Greece.’ GreeSE Paper No 20 (November), Hellenic Observatory Papers on Greece and Southeast Europe, LSE.

Luciano, Li Causi et al. 2013. Migrare, Fuggire. Per un’anthropologia del movimento nell’Europa Contemporanea. Pacini.

Marchetti, Aldo. 2004. ‘Lavoro e conflitto nel servizio domestico.’ In: Raimondo Catanzaro and Asher Colombo, eds., Badanti & Co. Il lavoro domestico straniero in Italia, pp. 329-356. Il Mulino.

Marchetti, Sabrina, and Alessandra Venturini. 2014. ‘Mothers and grandmothers on the move: labour mobility and the household strategies of Moldovan and Ukrainian migrant women in Italy.’ In International migration 52(5): 111-126.

Mazuz, Karen. 2013a. ‘The familial dyad between aged patients and Filipina caregivers in Israel: Eldercare, bodily-based practices, and the Jewish family.’ In Anthropology & Aging, 34(3): 126-134.

----. 2013b. ‘Folding paper swans, modeling lives.’ In Medical anthropology quarterly, 27(2): 215-232.

Miller, Daniel. 2007. ‘What is a Relationship? Is Kinship Negotiated Experience?’ In Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology, 72(4): 535-554.

MMJS [Ministerul Muncii și Justiției Sociale]. 2017. Raport Tematic Național, Nr. 2.322/DIS/31.01.2017. Retrieved from: , accessed on 14 July 2017.

Mol, Annemarie. 2008. The Logic of Care: Health and the Problem of the Patient Choice. Routledge.

Mol, Annemarie. Moser, Ingunn, and Jeannette Pols. 2010. Care in Practice. On Tinkering in Clinics, Homes and Farms. Bielefeld: Transcript.

Muehlebach, Andrea. 2012. The moral neoliberal: welfare and citizenship in Italy. University of Chicago Press.

----. 2011. ‘On affective labor in post-Fordist Italy.’ In Cultural Anthropology 26, no. 1: 59-82.

O’Beachain, Donnacha, Sheridan, Vera, and Sabina Stan (eds). 2012. Life in post-communist Europe after EU membership. Routledge.

OECD [OECD/European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies]. 2017. Italy: Country Health Profile 2017, State of Health in the EU, OECD Publishing, Paris/European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, Brussels.

Parreñas, Rhacel Salazar. 2001. Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration, and Domestic Work. Stanford (CA): Stanford University Press.

Pasquinelli, Sergio and Giselda Rusmini (eds). 2013. Badare non basta. Il lavoro di cura: attori, progetti e politiche. Rome: Ediesse.

Romero, Federico. 2002. ‘L’emigrazione operaia in Europa (1948–1973).’ In Bevilacqua, P., De Clementi, A. and Franzina, E., eds. Storia del’Emigrazione Italiana. Partenze. Pp. 397–414. Rome: Donzelli Editore.

Sassen, Saskia. 1999. Guests and Aliens. New York: New Press.

Schulz, Richard, et al. 2007. "Patient suffering and caregiver compassion: new opportunities for research, practice, and policy." The Gerontologist 47.1 (2007): 4-13.

Shutes, Isabel, and Carlos Chiatti. 2012. ‘Migrant labour and the marketisation of care for older people: The employment of migrant care workers by families and service providers.’ In Journal of European Social Policy 22(4): 392-405.

Stan, Sabina. 2010. The incredible adventure of democracy after communism (1989-2009). Iasi: Editura Institutul European.

Steedman, Carolyn. 1987. Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives. Rutgers University Press.

Stilwell, Barbara and Diallo, Khassoum and Zurn, Pascal and Vujicic, Marko and Adams, Orvill and Dal Poz, Mario. 2004. "Migration of health-care workers from developing countries: strategic approaches to its management." In Bulletin of the World Health Organization 82(8): 595-600. Available at: [Accessed 13 July 2017].

Taylor, Janelle. S. 2010. 'On recognition, caring and dementia.' In A. Mol, I. Moser and J. Pols, eds., Care: On Tinkering in Clinics, Homes and Farms, pp: 27-56. Bielefeld: Transcript.

Ungerson C. 1990. ‘The language of care: crossing the boundaries.’ In C. Ungerson, ed., Gender and Caring: Work and Welfare in Britain and Scandinavia, pp. 8-33. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Vianello, Francesca. 2012.”A Transnational Double Presence: Circular Migration between Ukraine and Italy” in A. Triandafyllidou, Circular Migration between Europe and its Neighbourhood. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yeates, Nicola. 2009. Globalizing care economies and migrant workers: explorations in global care chains. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Zacchino, Victorio. 2007. Salento Migrante. Appunti per la storia dell’emigrazione Salentina (1861– 1971). Rome: Edizioni Centro Studi Emigrazione.

Zelizer Viviana A. 2007. The Purchase of Intimacy. Princeton University Press.

Waiting for August. 2014 Film. Director Teodora Mihai, Writer Teodora Mihai. Romania and Belgium: Clin d’oeil Films, A Private View, Ecoute Une Fois.