Once upon a time there was a lonely old man.

He lived with seven cats in a village near Rome, and rarely saw his globe-trotting daughter. One day, he took out an ad in the newspaper, seeking to be adopted by a family in need of a grandfather.

The man was flooded with offers; so many that a local policeman had to help him field all the phone calls.

Last month, Giorgio Angelozzi's wish came true.

After a tryout stay, he packed up his clothes, said goodbye to the cats and moved in with a family with two teenage children.

This real-life fable has a happy ending.

But the 80-year-old retired classics teacher's appeal, which appeared in the Corriere della Sera, is a poignant reminder that change is chipping away at that pillar of Italian society -- the extended family.

Put bluntly, Italy's population is top-heavy with seniors.

With excellent longevity and one of the lowest birth rates in the world, Italy now has the highest national percentage of people 65 years or older -- 18.6 percent in 2003, according to the national statistics bureau ISTAT. Last year, Italians 14 years or younger made up just 14.3 percent of the population.

Factor in women who enter the work force instead of staying home with aging parents or in-laws, and the elderly are "ever more alone and ever more lonely," said Emilio Mortilla, a bioethics expert with the Aging Society, an Italian nonprofit group that analyzes the problems of seniors.

"Our generation is the first to consider it normal not to live with our elders," Mortilla said.

In a telephone conversation from his new home, Angelozzi said he feels like a "newborn adult." He helps 15-year-old "granddaughter" Dagmara Riva, who's struggling with Latin, with her studies.

"Grandpa is a person of great experience, an affectionate person. We're very happy we invited him to live with us," Dagmara said.

Angelozzi said he picked the family -- Elio and Marlena Riva, their 18-year-old son Mateusz and daughter Dagmara -- because Marlena's voice reminded him of the voice of his dead wife Lucia.

His cats were being looked after by a former neighbor.

Other elderly Italians are turning to strangers. Volunteer helpers now do much of what families members once did, accompanying the elderly to doctor's appointments or simply keeping them company.

"We have old people who are too ashamed to telephone us and ask for help," said Annamaria Pertosa, a volunteer in Milan with a support group. "Many don't have anyone or their children live far away."

A dapper gentleman who favors buttoned vests, Renzo Bellingeri, 91, always tips his hat when he runs into the ladies he knows in the neighborhood, where he lives alone in a rented apartment.

A block away, near Villa Pamphili, one of Rome's biggest parks, live his son and three of his six grandchildren. They hardly see him, Bellingeri said, hastening to add that he meant no criticism.

"Maybe they call you once a week, or once every other week, and ask, " 'Everything OK?' " said Bellingeri, who also has a daughter with grandchildren of her own who lives in Germany.

"The grandparents of my day would sit by the fireplace and let their children take care of everything. Their children and grandchildren would see a lot of them because they all lived together."

"Young people these days -- how can I say it -- exist in your life, but they're not present in it," he said. "They are like pictures hanging on a wall."

Fast growing in popularity is the use of caretakers who spend the day and often the night in the homes of elderly people who live alone.

"Putting an old person in an old-age home is the last resort in our culture," said Massimo Petrini, a theology and humanities professor at Rome's Sapienza University who helped develop a course to train these caretakers.

Of the 250 students in Sapienza's course, about 200 are foreigners, willing to do what's usually a low-paying job requiring lots of patience.

Hours are often spent sitting quietly in cafes where other seniors, accompanied by their caretakers, while away the time sipping cappuccino and chatting and watching a younger world pass by.

Petrini said most of the students come from Latin American countries, "where the elderly person is still highly valued, like a head of a family."

Elderly Italians play bocce in Milan. Italy has the highest national percentage of people 65 years or older in the world, which stood at 18.6 percent in 2003.