Losing my grandfather to dementia during the pandemic

The final months of a family and their grandfather during Italy's coronavirus lockdown
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Characters team Oct 29. 2020
by Characters team

These photographs, taken by photographer Marzio Toniolo, document the final months with his grandfather during Italy's coronavirus lockdown.

Source: Reuters
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Each time he went to a funeral, Gino Verani came away with a "santino," the traditional laminated card with a picture of the deceased on the front and a prayer on the back. Over the years he would slip them into two small cardboard boxes in a drawer in the living room of his house in San Fiorano - a town in northern Italy that was at the epicenter of the country's coronavirus pandemic - along with his watch, an outdated cellphone and his keys.By the time Verani died on Sept. 6 at the age of 88, he had collected nearly 150 "santini. Those cards depicting friends, and sometimes children of friends, became part of the many games his family devised to keep Verani's mind active against encroaching dementia during the national lockdown."I would occasionally lay them all out on a table and ask him to identify the pictures," said his grandson Marzio Toniolo, 35, an elementary school teacher in the same town. "He remembered many of them, more than he remembered what he did a while ago," he said.

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At one point during the three-month lockdown from March to May, four generations of the Verani-Toniolo family were living under the same roof, ranging from Toniolo's three-year-old daughter Bianca to Verani, her great-grandfather.
Bianca was holding hands with her great-grandfather in a rare moment of tenderness, as they were watching the news. Marzio said that although both Gino and Bianca loved each other very much, Gino struggled to respect the rules on social distancing which sometimes irritated Bianca, but, it was also just as difficult to make her understand her great-grandfather's difficulties.
 
 

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Marzio said this was one of the last times Verani was able to shave independently.
Two months later, he was no longer able to do so, so a barber came to the house weekly to cut his beard and hair.
 

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"After all of the restrictions were lifted (on June 3), he felt totally liberated. His mood improved and his body showed it for a while too," Toniolo said.
 

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During the summer Gino fell twice. He no longer could manage the stairs so the family, including his wife Ines, 85, Toniolo's wife Chiara, 32, and his mother, set up an area on the ground floor where Verani could sleep in a single bed.

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He had slept beside Ines their entire married life of 63 years. He was restless in the single bed. When he did sleep, it was badly. When family members cleaned him, he complained of pain.
 
 

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The family decided to move Verani to a care home in a nearby town so professionals could look after him, and Ines reluctantly agreed. Because of a two-week quarantine rule, they realised they might not see him alive again.

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"From that moment, my grandmother closed up inside herself, oppressed by feelings of guilt because, as she put it, 'we sent him off to die far from home'," Toniolo said.

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Verani died a week later of natural causes and his body was brought home. He was dressed in his best suit and put in a coffin flanked by two large candles for a 24-hour wake in the living room, a tradition in a country where funeral homes are not commonly used.
 

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Almost the whole town turned out to see him. Each person received a "santino" with Verani's picture on it.
Toniolo added one to the boxes in the living room drawer, retiring his grandfather's collection forever.

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