Cause of death: Sense of duty

Cause of death: Sense of duty

Filotimo is one of those Greek words that are hard to translate into other languages, because of the emotional and cultural baggage that they carry. It means far more than its common English translation: “sense of honor.” It derives from ancient Greek philotimia: a combination of social service, sense of responsibility and ambition for recognition. A future dictionary of Modern Greek may need a narrative to explain the meaning of a word that will have gone out of use. It can find filotimo in the decision of Dimitris Kampanaros, owner of a nursing home north of Athens, to end his life on October 21. Early in March, he took a unique decision: After testing his staff for Covid-19, he put the nursing home under lockdown, and “locked” the elderly, his staff (including the teenage son of a nurse), himself and his family in the nursing home for 65 days. Wishing to relate this experience in a documentary, he invited me to serve as co-producer. I accepted, blaming a gene inherited from my father, who was a movie producer in the 1950s. The camera of the director Christos Barbas has captured inspiring and touching moments. We gave the film the working title “Through a Window,” referring to the way the elderly and their relatives communicated. Everyone remained safe.

I first met Dimitris 20 years ago, when he was a graduate student in Heidelberg and I was the vice rector of the university. He was awarded a prize sponsored by the German Service for Academic Exchanges and given to a foreign student excelling in academic performance and social engagement. Dimitris was the obvious choice. His love for his grandmother had set him on a mission: to improve quality of life for the elderly. One of his ideas that had impressed me then was the creation of a meeting place where elderly immigrants and refugees – people with limited knowledge of German, uprooted from their homeland and family, without a job to fill their hours – could gather and share their stories. We became close friends. From the impersonal “Mr Chaniotis,” he moved to “Archige” (Chief), to “Angele,” and finally to “Adelfe” (Brother).

His PhD thesis, “Cognitive Intervention in the Third Age: A Psychological and Educational Analysis” (2004), could have paved the way for a brilliant academic career in Germany. But wishing to put ideas into practice, Dimitris returned to Greece. At the age of 26 he established Nea Thalpi under the programmatic name Elderly Care and Rehabilitation Unit; it was a successful enterprise even during Greece’s financial crisis. Those who spent the last phase of their lives there were not “patients,” “guests” or “inmates”; they were at home, receiving state-of-the-art care. Dimitris was constantly talking about new ideas and initiatives: providing computer courses and fashion shows for the elderly, training elderly refugees, creating 3D films that would take the elderly to places they could no longer visit. I regret that I never talked to him about my idea to establish a “Gerontolympics” for the elderly. His great dream was a model village for the elderly. He had identified a location in Achaia, the plans of the settlement were made, contacts with German retirement agencies established. But Greek reality can be a painful awakening. As he writes in his last note: “I always set aims; they led to nowhere. I am tired.”

In June, when he could no longer prolong the lockdown of Nea Thalpi, he wrote to me: “Complete relaxation; people don’t care about precautions. God help us! This autumn will be hard.” He was right. It was because of his own initiative to continually conduct tests that the infection of two members of his staff and an elderly guest were discovered – all of them asymptomatic. When he himself tested positive, he took his life, comparing himself with a captain who has lost his ship. He simply could not live with the knowledge that he was unable to offer complete protection to the people who had been put in his care. Helping others was his raison d’être, filotimo the cause of his death.

It was stated in the media that Dimitris faced psychological problems. When you are a rational scientist – who knows that at the moment the only weapons against the pandemic are the (cheap) masks and the frequent (but expensive) tests – how can you not lose it when you are surrounded by irresponsibility, negligence, selfishness and narrow-mindedness? Accustomed to a lack of professionalism and responsibility, Greek society was completely puzzled by his decision. All the crises of the last decades have brought to the limelight people with a thick skin, not those with a sense of duty and honor. If Dimitris had completed his path, he would have been one of those people after whom streets and squares are named. Now Greek gerontology has lost its most innovative mind, Greek society a role model, and I my little brother. The words in an ancient inscription from Aphrodisias are a fitting epitaph: “In him were combined all the virtues of the soul and the body.” Ὡς ἐν αὐτῷ πᾶσαν κεκρᾶσθαι τὴν ἀρετὴν ὅσην ψυχῆς ἐστιν καὶ σώματος.

* Angelos Chaniotis is professor of Ancient History at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.

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