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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.

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