Italian seniors take their passeggiata to shopping centres


by Rita Simonetta

Sensible walking shoes are essential accessories on weekday mornings at Greater Toronto Area malls. They’re donned by silver-haired Italian-Canadian seniors who stroll, socialize and pass the time as part of the time-honoured tradition of the passeggiata, North American style. “[Malls are] the indoor piazza,” says Stefano Muzzatti, a sociology associate professor at Ryerson University. “They have become the new public sphere.” But these privately-owned commercial spaces are a world apart from Italy’s publically-owned town squares that are seeped in history and culture. “The underpinning is quite different; the surroundings are different,” Muzzatti says. “Malls are very much a product of post-Second World War consumerism and suburban sprawl. There is no public art or architecture. There are no temples for consumption.”

But no matter. Toronto’s Italian seniors who trek the polished corridors of shopping centres are masters of adaptation and reinvention. Unlike Italians who enjoy a passeggiata with family, friends and lovers situated in a particular town, these seniors aren’t bound by Italy’s geographical limits. In GTA malls, Calabrese walk alongside Sicilians, Abruzzese and Friuliani. This interaction among their peers is the reason they return each day.

When Active Aging Canada first developed its mall-walking program, Mall Movers, it conducted research on how to encourage seniors to start exercising. “Seniors weren’t thinking about the physiological benefits primarily,” recalls Patricia Clark, national executive director. “They said they wanted to be social, have fun and feel good about themselves.” When the organization received feedback from participants who had taken part, the focus was the same. “They felt stronger and more independent and they liked that they had been able to meet other people and had made new friends.”

Mississauga resident Antonio Gianfelice walks Square One Shopping Centre as often as he can. “I don’t want to stay home all the time,” says the 74-year-old. “I like to walk and get some exercise. And I see some Italians who I know.”

Gianfelice, a native of Sonnino, Latina, in the region of Lazio, says he’s always been on the go. A few decades back he played soccer and ran six miles an evening. Although he notes that he’s “slowed down” considerably, he walks his local mall for over an hour each day to get his daily dose of exercise. He particularly relishes going on Monday evenings when the mall isn’t busy. “I walk fast,” he points out. “So that’s when I can walk the way I like.” 

Strolling seniors like Gianfelice are on to a good thing. According to The Canadian Government’s 2014 Report on the Social Isolation of Seniors, “social isolation is associated with higher levels of depression, and socially isolated seniors have a four-to-five times greater risk of hospitalization.”

First generation Italian-Canadians have the additional challenge of getting older in a country that’s not their birth-country and navigating in a language that’s not their native tongue. “When [Italians] immigrated, the place they came to was very white, very inglese,” explains Muzzatti. “It wasn’t a comfortable place to be if you were Italian. So it’s not surprising they still gravitate toward one another and want to bond.”

And they bond in pairs or small groups. They speak Italian, English and Italiese in equal parts. Topics of conversation range from blood pressure readings to soccer, politics, children, grandkids and the “new generation,” all of which elicit the same passion. 

Some, more sprite than others, move with impressive agility. Others hobble, no thanks to that bad knee or bothersome hip that’s plagued them after decades spent paving cement or constructing doorway frames.

Whatever way they move, they’re on the right track. The Cardiac Health Foundation of Canada says walking for a minimum of 30 minutes a day five days a week reduces the risk of cardiovascular problems by 31%. It has less impact on the joints than running, a particularly important advantage for the elderly or those with cardiovascular conditions, points out John A. Sawdon, the public education and special projects director at Cardiac Health Foundation of Canada. “And mall walking is safer than walking outdoors.”

This is all good news to Gianfelice who looks forward to his daily passeggiata. “I enjoy it,” he says. “I come home and I feel so good.”