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Ukraine: Older people confronted with war rely on the support of volunteers

Olga Perekopaiko, a volunteer with Kyiv’s chat “Help to Ba and De” (short for babushka and dedushka – ‘granny’ and ‘grandpa’ in Russian) talked to Amnesty International in the early days of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, about the ways in which Russia’s war against Ukraine has affected the country’s older residents and how volunteers have been helping them. Since then, the Russian forces have been pushed back away from Kyiv Region, and Russian aerial attacks have been less frequent and less vicious there. However, Ukrainian people, including older people, are now facing the same problems in other parts of Ukraine that are more directly affected by intense fighting. What Olga Perekopaiko told Amnesty International about the experiences of older people during the conflict remains all too relevant.

How has the war affected mental health of older people?

Many older people, unable to endure a long journey on physical or psychological grounds, are compelled to stay in their hometowns rather than flee to a safer place alongside other family members. As a result, they often find themselves living near the front line, or may even experience shelling or bombing.

Older people, just like others, feel terrified when they hear explosions or the sounds of air raid sirens. Some experience flashbacks of World War II while others may refuse to accept reality altogether. “How can this be happening today? We have already survived one war,” they ask.

It is cold in the house, no water, no light. We are waiting until the weather warms up. We are lying in bed in our clothes, my wife is a Chernobyl disaster survivor and she could hardly walk.
We did not try to hide anywhere. I gave up on it, although the shelling was so hard, it was mad. But I have come to an end of my life, I don’t care.
First, we lost gas. We had a small gas container for a camping cooker, so we would boil some tea in the morning, and think how much gas was left there. We would cook bortsch and try to eat little to keep it for a week. It was hard, we could not imagine how hard it would be…

Georgiy, 72 years old, Bucha, Kyiv Region

Often older people are scared to leave their homes. They worry that in case of an air raid siren, they will not be able to run to a hiding place. Some may even feel nervous about venturing onto a balcony. So older people may find themselves confined within four walls, without fresh air or exercise. I also meet people who seem relaxed about the prospect of death. They refuse to go down into a bomb shelter; they say, “We have already lived our lives.”

How did you join the volunteer movement?

At the start of the war, the Zhiznelyub charity set up a phone helpline for older people to leave a request for food or medicine, which volunteers then buy and deliver to them. Through a Facebook ad, I got connected to such a volunteer group for a Kyiv district. 

How do you help older people?

My responsibility is to bring them food and medicine. But I also offer help around the house or with other pressing issues that they may have at that moment. In addition, as a trained psychologist, I try to spare some time for talking to them about their worries and anxieties.

I think it is important that volunteers offer help. For example, it might be just to open the window – if the person uses a walking-frame, for instance, it can be difficult for them to move. Or it might be helping to find out when their pension will be delivered. Older people may get worried if they do not receive their pension on time – with shortages of banknotes and long queues at ATMs, they become very anxious that they will have no money to buy food or medicine.

In Kyiv, it was also a challenge to find certain kinds of medicine. Many pharmacies closed down because of staff shortages. I would often spend hours queuing up only to find out at the counter that just a handful of medications on my list were available. I would then head to another pharmacy, and so on.

The bombing was so intense during the first day – rockets were flying from one side to the other. One missile is in the air, then another, and it seems as if the roof will be blown away in a moment. The windows were smashed in a second, and we hid in the toilet, where we kept praying non-stop.

Vera, 76 years old, Bucha, Kyiv Region

How can you support older people psychologically?

Chatting to them even for 15-20 minutes could make a huge difference to their mental state.

During my first volunteering experience, I met Lyubov, a 90-year-old lady, who lost her daughter and son-in-law due to Covid-19 a few months before the war. Her grandson was in Irpin[1] and could not get in touch with his grandmother. She told me a lot about her daughter and her life and shared some very deep emotions that had been overwhelming her.

Are there currently high levels of anxiety?

Yes, and I would say especially among the older generation. It is also being exacerbated by them feeling isolated and secluded, as many people around them have left. For example, only a third of my own apartment building is currently occupied.

It is quite common in my experience that older people would try to alleviate their anxiety by stocking up on groceries and medicines. They have such memories from the Soviet times when food shortages were ubiquitous. For example, they may ask you to buy a dozen packs of various cereals and several loafs of bread, in addition to a number of packs of medicine. Pantry stocks seem to increase their sense of security.

I cannot help them stocking up, yet I worry that supplies might run out. I queue up at the pharmacy, feeling guilty for buying many packs of medicines – maybe other people in the queue are also looking for this medicine, and there will not be enough for everyone. Heart and anti-anxiety medications are selling out in a flash, and many other drugs come in small quantities, if they come at all.

What advice would you give to those who want to help older people?

I think that setting up a psychological support ‘hotline’ for older people should be a first step. The service should be free and older people should also be exempt from any phone charges. Secondly, volunteers should be trained to work with older people so that they learn some of the most useful skills.

Having a chat could really improve an older person’s emotional state and make them feel cared for.

The most important thing is of course to ensure their safety, but these days nowhere is entirely safe.

[1] A town on the outskirts of Kyiv that was the focus of a month-long intense fighting between the Russian and defending Ukrainian forces in February-March 2022.