Ukraine's elderly often remain behind; here's how they've survived a year of war
SLOVIANSK and KYIV, Ukraine — It was late on a Tuesday night in September in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk, about 20 minutes from the front lines of the war with Russia. Liubov Lada had just gone to bed when the apartment she'd lived in with her husband, Viktor, for 63 years was hit by Russian artillery.
The building's exterior wall crashed and fell into the room, covering her with ash and dust, and sending debris everywhere.
She remembers calling out to Viktor, who had been sitting in the living room. "Vitia! Vitia!," repeating the nickname she used for him, her voice trembling. She found him alive but hurt.
His arm was cut, blood was smeared on the wall. "I can't remember it without fear," Liubov says through tears.
"I don't know how we survived," says Viktor. "Everything was destroyed, but we survived."
The Ladas, both in their 90s, now live in a nearby apartment their grandson found for them. They've filled the space with the things they could salvage: lace curtains, porcelain dolls and a lamp with bright flowers.
They had to clean the couch multiple times after the attack to make it white again, and there's still a hole in the back, left over from a piece of shrapnel.
The Ladas are among the millions of elderly residents that have remained in Ukraine since Russia invaded in February 2022. The country has the highest proportion of elderly affected by war. According to HelpAge, an international nonprofit focused on the elderly, people over 60 years old make up nearly one-fourth of the population.
In war, the elderly are often the ones who stay behind, either unwilling or unable to evacuate, relying on government pensions, humanitarian aid and the support of their communities to survive.
In an apartment complex in Kyiv
Pavlo Komodovskyi and his wife, Tamara Vasylenko, have spent the last year in their apartment building in Kyiv. "One of the defenders of our lines had a stroke," Komodovskyi says, explaining that Vasylenko had a stroke over the winter and spent seven days in the hospital. It has affected her speech and made it hard for her to do everyday tasks.
Komodovskyi is a former military pilot and often speaks using military lingo and metaphors. "I am holding the defensive line — for both of us," he says. Since her stroke, his wife has seemed like two different people, he tells us. Sometimes, she's completely okay, and then, just a moment later, she won't react to anything.
"We're in our late 80s, though," he says. "What can else can you expect?"
While Vasylenko has been recovering, Komodovskyi has taken over the cooking. When we visit, he's preparing to make borscht, one of his wife's favorites and a Ukrainian specialty. He calls it his "first exam." When NPR first visited the couple, who has been together since they were children, they said that being together was the most important thing in helping them get through the war. On this visit, Komodovskyi reaffirms the sentiment. "It's still the same," he says. "Nothing has changed about that."
The Kyiv they live in now is also much safer than a year ago. And their children and grandchildren regularly visit.
Down the hallway, a few apartments away, Nadiia Yerkhimovych lives with her son Mykhailo, who goes by Misha. "First she carried me, and then I carried her," he tells us.
When Russia first invaded, Nadiia, who is now 90 years old, was bedridden and in need of medicine and diapers. But now, she's able to walk with the help of a walker, and medical care is far more accessible.
The power outages in Kyiv have been hard, she says, pointing to the candles spread around the surfaces of her bedroom. She also really misses the outside; her building's elevator is broken and an open window isn't quite enough.
"Sometimes I feel better," she says, "sometimes I feel worse." But, she tells us, "I want to live. Doesn't everyone?"
It's helpful that she has lived through difficult times before. "It's not my first war," she says, explaining that when she was a child, during World War II, she participated in choirs and singing competitions to stay busy. Before we leave, she sings us the song Prayer for Ukraine, a hymn from 1885.
"Protect our beloved Ukraine," she sings. "Bless us with good fortune — forever and ever more."
A couple's survival represents a resilient people
Back in Sloviansk, Svitlana Domoratska, a social worker who has worked with the Ladas for many years, tells me she's constantly inspired by the couple. "Their survival, their resilience — it's a metaphor for this city," she says. A lightning offensive in the fall by Ukrainian forces pushed the Russian front line further back from Sloviansk, so Russian shelling is far less frequent. City services have resumed and there is more consistent access to water, power and heat. Since the summer, the city's population has doubled. As of February, about 50,000 people live in the city — and about half of those residents need help from social workers, according to the mayor's office.
When Domoratska heard that the Ladas' apartment had been hit last September, she rushed to help. She stayed with them for hours, cleaning the apartment and making sure they got medical care.
There are still some lingering issues for the couple. "I still have a strange sound in my ears," Liubov Lada says. "It's like frog sound — 'kwa, kwa' — even though it happened five months ago."
Sometimes they cry and feel sad, they tell us. But life has also gotten better. Their house is warm, the supermarkets are full, and they have family nearby.
"Our story is not about sorrow," Viktor says. "We survived. It's happiness, not sorrow!"
Hanna Palamarenko contributed to this story from Sloviansk and Kyiv, Ukraine.
Text edited by: Zach Thompson
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