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Windows to the World

Caritas Ukraine brings life and light to the elderly

Idealized images of retirement conjure up couples taking up leisurely hobbies, such as painting or sailing; doting on their grandchildren with lavish gifts; taking luxury cruises; and pursuing activities formerly confined to a “bucket list.” Such are the alluring images conjured by North American marketers, eager to open closely guarded nest eggs.

For almost all of Ukraine’s seniors, however, prospects for such a retirement remain imaginary. Among an overwhelming majority of the country’s 11 million pensioners — a quarter of the population — most can count on working harder and enduring more hardship in their so-called golden years.

Petro Yaroshenko, 64, hangs on to the steel bars of his bed’s headboard with his slender arms. His body trembles.

“It all started when the Russians came,” Mr. Yaroshenko says of his Parkinson’s disease, tracing its onset to the war that began in eastern Ukraine in April 2014.

Anxiety had begun to set in when his native Kramatorsk, an industrial city of some 200,000 people, became a battleground. Gunfire and explosions rocked the city for months, until Ukrainian national forces secured it the following July.

“First, my fingers, then my hands, then my whole body started to shake,” the former factory machine builder says, attributing his “fright syndrome” to the constant shelling.

Nadia Dryaglina, a registered nurse displaced by the fighting in nearby Horlivka, says the factory worker had not received proper care for about a year until a local branch of Caritas, the social service charity of the Catholic bishops of Ukraine, asked her to treat him.

“Mr. Yaroshenko hadn’t been bathed for a year,” she recalls, adding that he lived in solitude with no siblings, spouse or children to offer help.

“I called a barber to come to the house to cut his hair,” the nurse continues. “He was malnourished.”

The retired factory worker is among the 3 percent of pensioners who receive the lowest amount distributed by the Ukrainian government, a mere $53 a month, just $4 more than what the government considers the poverty line.

Anxious to change the subject, he boasts how in 1960 he had built the four-room, single-floor house in which he now lives. “I once had the constitution of an ox. I weighed 165 pounds; now I weigh about 80,” he says, his voice trailing off quietly.

The house is a modest dwelling. An apple tree grows outside; its bounty remains unpicked. A canopy of wine grapes forms a vault over an empty driveway. Overgrowth covers a summer kitchen no longer in use. Inside, Soviet-era furniture decorates the interior, last updated in the 1970’s. No television or radio plays.

“I don’t want to listen to the news; there’s too much bad news out there. I can’t go outside; my spine hurts too much,” Mr. Yaroshenko says.

“Caritas is like a sip of water in the desert,” he says, as the nurse washes his feet after having just fed him. “I wish more organizations like this existed in the world.”

The internal strength of his body builds as he speaks.

“I want to wish Father Vasyl all the health in the world, and thank him,” he says of the Greek Catholic priest who heads the local Caritas chapter in Kramatorsk.

It is to those most in need, such as Petro Yaroshenko, whom Caritas Ukraine focuses its help. Resources are scarce as they are scattered across Ukraine’s vast terrain, focusing on 12 cities as well as the rural interior, with the city of Kramatorsk and its immediate environs being its newest mission.

In addition to running the local chapter of Caritas, the Rev. Vasyl Ivanyuk has his hands full, shepherding six parishes and serving as a chaplain to those serving in the nearby front.

At Prophet Elijah Church, a moderately sized, eye-catching wooden building where he celebrates the Divine Liturgy every Sunday, he passively points to a sign. It reads: “With prayer and fasting we can stop war.”

Only when asked does he point out the church’s shattered yellow and white stained glass windows as scars of war.

“Three are from mortar shrapnel, one is from a rocket that came through here in July 2014,” Father Ivanyuk says. It was during this time that he saw an influx of seniors seeking help at the house of worship.

Some 600 displaced families sought refuge here through March 2015 at the height of the war, just as the second of two truces was being brokered in the Belarusian capital of Minsk.

The agreements have never quite taken hold.

“Half of the displaced we helped were elderly. We served 60 families a day, handing out 10 days’ worth of food [to each]. Altogether, we have distributed 300 tons of clothes and 17,000 food boxes since 2014,” Father Ivanyuk says.

Seniors are always the least demanding, he observed. They never ask for more, and are the most gracious.

He recounted the story of one couple. Both were 82 years old; both had walked a tortuous 24 miles in frigid February weather at the height of the war in 2015 to find safety. Units from the Ukrainian army picked them up on the government-controlled side and drove the pair to Father Ivanyuk, who arranged for their care.

On the day of the priest’s 25th wedding anniversary, the elderly man gave Father Ivanyuk a bouquet of flowers for his wife.

“It was obviously plucked from the city grounds and not bought,” the priest says. “It was the kindest gesture. They often return to show their gratitude, especially to our female volunteers.”

Although the human spirit is undoubtedly strong, pensioners can find it difficult to adapt to new circumstances, the priest notes.

“A mature tree can’t be easily transplanted,” he says of those who find themselves uprooted suddenly.

“They go through hardship, live alone. They’re in a foreign place, and everything is new to them.”

That’s why when he makes house calls, he says, he just listens.

“That’s my calling, that’s the service that I can provide. I want to and know how to listen. People of a certain age start to think about the meaning of life, analyzing their own and looking at the afterlife.”

The importance of making house calls — whether to deliver Bibles upon request or to hear confessions and anoint the sick — cannot be underestimated, says the Rev. Andriy Nahirnyak, who serves as vice president of Caritas Ukraine and helps lead the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s social service ministry.

“As people get older, they begin to think in existential terms, about the sense and purpose of life, about forgiveness and justice,” he says.

“A spiritual measurement of life is part of one’s health,” the priest continues. “As part of this process, they undergo peace and reconciliation in their relations with children, parents, siblings or enemies. It’s important to end life with internal freedom, dignity and completeness.”

Petro Yaroshenko’s plight may seem extreme, but it is not far from the norm. According to International Monetary Fund data released in October, Ukraine has become the poorest nation in Europe, measured in GDP per capita.

Official data suggests the average monthly wage in Ukraine is around $300. Somehow, most pensioners survive on about $90 a month.

Ever since Ukraine achieved its independence from the unraveling Soviet Union in 1991, the social service net cobbled together during those turbulent and lean years of transition has failed to meet the needs of the poor and vulnerable — especially the elderly. Those who retire and live in isolation cannot afford to reside at what few private retirement homes exist. State-owned homes, which often resemble dormitories housing four or more people per room, do not meet the growing demand of an aging population. Typically, these facilities are exclusive to those who once made contributions to the Soviet-era government, belonged to the Communist Party or joined labor groups or served as military personnel.

“Besides, in Ukraine, one’s ties to one’s native land are strong,” says Father Nahirnyak.

“Unlike in the West, especially in America, where people move to five or six different places in their lifetime, in Ukraine, people usually live in one place.

“It’s still not uncommon for someone to live and die in his or her own home.”

This also means families usually look after their oldest members. But as younger family members move to Ukraine’s urban areas or, increasingly, abroad, more of the nation’s elderly live alone and receive little care.

Drawing on donations from as far as North America, Caritas Ukraine has made elderly home care its oldest and most diverse project.

“We first started with funding from Caritas Germany. They wanted to provide assistance to people who suffered from Nazi rule during World War II,” says National Project Manager Halyna Kurnytska.

At the outset in 1999, local hospitals and social security agencies were contacted. Now, Ms. Kurnytska says, “They come to us” — a testimony to the project’s success.

Many lonely seniors who receive assistance cannot open their doors because they are bedridden. Often, nurses and social workers are the only people they see on any given day. The pensioners rely upon them to bathe, attend to their hygienic needs and check blood pressure and sugar levels. Housekeeping is paramount along with food preparation and laundry.

More importantly, physical activity is encouraged and conversation keeps them in good spirits.

“We are the window to the world for these people,” says the Rev. Roman Syrotych, Caritas Kiev director. “We provide them with information and do their shopping for them.”

Unfortunately, he adds, “We must reject people because there are 60 people in our care for five homecare givers.”

As Ukraine continues to reform its health care and social service system, Caritas is helping to push for newer models of elderly care.

Ms. Kurnytska urges local governments to consider employing social services from groups such as Caritas, a successful model that Austria and Germany is applying. She has already persuaded the Ternopil city government in western Ukraine to allocate money to Caritas to better assist lonely seniors in that municipality.

In addition to its medical, housekeeping and spiritual services, Caritas offers warmth through company and conversation.

Nurse Maria Batychko “is an angel from the sky,” says 85-year-old Kateryna Babich, who suffers from Parkinson’s, during a recent visit. Ms. Batychko helps bathe the elderly woman, reminds her to take her medicines, cooks and does the laundry for her, and takes her for walks outside when the weather permits.

“My neighbors say that their own daughters don’t take care of them like Maria does me,” says Ms. Babich, who was orphaned at 13. “They’re quite jealous.”

Indeed, project manager Ms. Kurnytska believes that simple visits just to talk can impede the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. For this reason, Fathers Ivanyuk and Nahirnyak want to promote senior clubs to gather the elderly so they may enjoy each other’s company, to screen movies together and do simple physical activities.

Wheelchair-user Olha Kuryna, 61, keeps occupied by putting together candy boxes for a nearby chocolate factory on her bed. She receives $0.04 per box and can assemble 500 boxes in three days. She relies on Nadia Dryaglina to help her change her clothes and bathe at the rehabilitation center where she lives in Kramatorsk.

Displaced from her home in the now occupied coal and steel center of Makiyivka, the former retired director of a nongovernmental organization looks forward to returning home.

“It’s been frightful for the last four years of the war. I didn’t think it would last that long. I’ll never forget the bombing,” she says.

“I want to return once the war ends. Home sweet home is a long way for now.”

Meanwhile, she is moving forward with life. She has started taking manicurist courses. She hasn’t decided yet whether she’ll seek employment at an existing nail salon or start her own business.

“I have a network of colleagues, friends and acquaintances here,” Ms. Kuryna says. “That circle of people should be enough to start building up a clientele.”

Meanwhile, the people who make up Caritas Ukraine will continue doing what they know best — reaching out to those most in need on behalf of the country’s Greek Catholic community.

“We need to increase our manpower — we’re stretched pretty thin,” says Halyna Kurnytska.

“Sometimes we don’t have days off, and work on weekends. There’s a waiting list for our services.”

Mark Raczkiewycz is the Ukraine correspondent for the New Jersey-based The Ukrainian Weekly. His work has appeared in The Kyiv Post, The Financial Times, The Irish Times and Jane’s Intelligence, among other places.

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