Advances in in vitro fertilization mean that women are able to bear children at increasingly advanced ages. But that's not without consequences, as the case of Greece's oldest mother shows. She gave birth at 60.
Grandparents or parents?
On the Greek island of Rhodes, eight-year-old Angelos Kariotis gets help after dinner from his mother with his homework. It's not an unusual scene -- although in this case, an outside observer would be surprised at the picture in front of him. Angelos' mother, Charistoula, is 60 years older than her son. Her mouth is full of gold teeth, and she has the gain and demeanor of a grandmother.
"She had always wanted to have kids and so had I," said Charistoula's husband, Ianni, also 68. He agreed to his wife's plan to have children at her advanced age. Eight years ago, she lied to doctors about her age, even dyeing her hair black, in order to obtain in vitro fertilization treatments and get pregnant. The result was the twins, Angelos and Nicolas.
The family lives in the small village of Arc Angel, a traditional Greek community where in the past a woman's role in life was to have children and bring them up. Those who could not were often ostracized by other villagers, as Charistoula was. If a couple failed to have children, the marriage often failed as well.
Ianni and Charistoula's marriage survived those childless years, but they left their mark.
"My wife said to me, 'Ianni, we have to have children for the sake of stubbornness because of the way the people in the village have treated me,'" Ianni said.
The family lives in a small, whitewashed house with three rooms, where the twins share a bedroom with their parents. There is no central heating, and in the winter, when Rhodes can get very cold, the family huddles around a single electric heater while watching television, all dressed in their winter coats.
The family gets by, just barely, on Ianni's monthly pension of 500 euros ($665). Unlike younger parents, they do not receive government child support because they are pensioners. While most dinner tables in Greece are generally overflowing with food, in the Kariotis household, there are just four bowls of plain spaghetti covered with a sprinkling of cheese.
"Certainly, we are finding it tough in terms of money," Ianni said. "I don't want charity, but I would like a grant or allowance from the government to help us cope."
The family has a small farm where they grow citrus fruits and olives, but they don't have a truck they could use to take the produce to market. Because they are retired, they don't qualify for a government tax break to buy a cheap vehicle.
Despite the economic hardships, Charistoula refused to say that she has done anything wrong by having children at her age. She denied that she waited until the last minute to have the kids, since she had tried to get pregnant for over 18 years before she succeeded.
"I had been to every doctor and medical professor you could think of in that time," she said. "I had the children so they could take over my property. Why should outsiders take it over?"
Every day, Ianni takes the boys to school on his scooter. One of the boys stands in the footwell while the other clings on to his father from the back. Ianni is cautious in his speech when his wife in present, but when alone, he admits he had some reservations about their decision eight years ago.
"If she had been 50, I would have agreed with my wife getting pregnant," he said. "But 60, I didn't really agree with. But because we had gotten that far, we had to carry on and that's why we had the kids at 60."
He said he would like to see an age limit imposed on women having in vitro fertilization treatments.
The Greek government agrees. It has passed a low which makes it illegal for doctors to provide in vitro services to women over 50.
"It's very tiring having kids at 60 but the thing is that women don't realize that at the time," he said. "An older woman doesn't have the strength that a 30 or 40 or 50-year-old woman has."
Still, despite the family' difficulties, his wife doesn't think age should be an issue.
"They won't have any problems as long as they have money and they can get help," she said. "It's the money."