Windows to the World

How the people of Caritas Ukraine bring life and light to the elderly

text by Mark Raczkiewycz with photographs by Ivan Chernichkin

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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.

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