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AARP The Magazine Special Report: Part 2

Orphaned Ukraine Elders’ Exodus to Nowhere

A snapshot of their plight, with no place else to go for shelter and care

spinner image Oleksandr Starosvitsky, Director, and the Deputy Director of the Tavriiske Psychiatric and Geriatric Home
The director of the Tavriiske Psychiatric and Geriatric Home, Oleksandr Starosvitskyi, with his deputy, Ludmila Melnik.

Just a few miles north of Orikhiv on Highway H08 lies the village of Tavriiske. There, the director of the Tavriiske Psychiatric and Geriatric Home, Oleksandr Starosvitskyi, faces a torturous decision. Since the war broke out, the state-run facility for older adults and the mentally and physically disabled has taken in more than a dozen evacuated older Ukrainians who — with their families gone — are in desperate need of shelter and care. They joined the burgeoning number of older Ukrainians “orphaned” by the war with Russia.

For Part 1, see: War’s Terrible Toll on Ukraine’s Elders

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Now this home, with its 420 residents, is too close to the front lines. On one side is Orikhiv, already a target of shelling; on the other are two more villages directly in the line of fire. When and how can Starosvitskyi move his charges to safety?

“With the start of hostilities, it was clear that we had one issue: the evacuation of these people,” he says. “When the front line was somewhere in Melitopol, about 75 miles away, there was still some hope, but now it’s 6 miles away. And these are bedridden people, older people. How can we transport them? Who will look after them? They need round-the-clock care.”

spinner image care home in Tavriiske
The care and nursing home in Tavriiske, Ukraine.

Set amid lush fields and groves of trees, the low brick and beige stucco buildings of the Tavriiske care and nursing home, continue to tell the troubled story of Ukraine’s tumultuous past century. Built as a district school, it sheltered homeless children during the Russian Revolution and civil war. In the 1930s it became a boarding school for orphans of the man-made famine engineered by Joseph Stalin; during 1941-42 it served as a military hospital. Since then, it has housed older adults and people with psychological and neurological disabilities from all over the region.

spinner image The grounds of one of the buildings of a care home in Tavriiske village, Zaporizhia region, Ukraine
The care home’s gardens.

At first it’s hard to imagine this wrenching history. The home bustles with activity. The wheat and barley in the fields around the small, neat village is waist high. The care home’s gardens, maintained by residents, are bright with flowers. The open doors of the buildings admit fresh, fragrant breezes and the sound of birdsong.

The home employs 1 in 4 villagers. But its normal staff of 240 has been depleted by the 100 workers who have left for safer places. And the size of the institution, and the special needs of many residents, make it next to impossible to find a single alternative accommodation for them. With displaced people of all ages in Ukraine filling collective centers located in colleges, schools and other municipal buildings, there’s simply no space for those least able to help themselves: older Ukrainians.

At the time of our visit, in May, accommodations for only about 100 residents had been found in different towns. “That doesn’t cover everyone,” says Starosvitskyi, his voice edged with frustration. “I mean, you either evacuate everyone or no one.”

So, the issue is constantly being put off until tomorrow, though “there is a point of no return,” he concedes. And when is that point? “When they are 1 to 2 kilometers from us, then it will be too late. We understand this.”

The pull of inertia, hope and home runs deep — in the staff, the residents and even in Starosvitskyi himself. He is 62 and due to retire at the end of this year. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to take over his job as director of a care home in a war zone. He shrugs and smiles when I ask if he’ll really retire. He is tied to Tavriiske not just by his care-home charges but by his 84-year-old mother, who lives in her house in the village and needs two walking sticks to get about.

He had asked her to move with his wife to Zaporizhzhia, where his son also lives. “My mother said, ‘No. I won’t go.’ She said, ‘I won’t leave you here alone.’ And I said, ‘I won’t leave you here.’ ”

And what of the residents themselves? Everyone I spoke with had a story of transience and resilience, of tragedy and, occasionally, hope.

spinner image Volodymyr and Tatiana Kharchenko
Wife and husband Tatiana and Volodymyr Kharchenko at the Tavriiske care home.

Volodymyr and Tatiana Kharchenko arrived in Tavriiske in late April. They had needed to flee their home in Mala Tokmachka, a nearby village that’s now right on the front line. They met in 1961, when he conspired to get a seat next to hers at a movie theater after he’d spotted her earlier at a dance — not knowing that she had noticed him as well. She was a Russian agronomist who had just been posted to his little town.

“The next day I went to the cinema,” recalls Tatiana, now 84. “I bought a ticket and sat down, and what do you think happened? He came and sat down right next to me!”

“It was like this: They said, ‘The agronomist has arrived,’ ” says Volodymyr, who is also 84. “And I said, ‘Give me a ticket next to the agronomist.’ So, they did.”

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“And now it’s been 61 years,” says his wife.

“She’s Russian. And I’m Ukrainian. So, we fight a bit. But not too much.”

Everyone in the room laughs, except for Volodymyr and his wife, sitting side by side on the narrow institutional bed in the Tavriiske care home. Caregivers hover in the doorway. Volodymyr’s stare is both ferocious and forlorn through his thick-lensed glasses. “We’ve been living together for 60 years. Fighting a bit but not too much, because there aren’t enough spaces in the graveyards now.” He is joking, though everyone knows it is close to an uncomfortable truth.

Their daughter was born in 1962; their son, in 1966. The daughter moved to Crimea, and the son was sent to serve in the Soviet Pacific Fleet. Four grandchildren; three great-grandchildren.

It’s the kind of long, stable life that should be accompanied by photographs and mementos. I want to see a picture of Volodymyr as the tall young man who caught Tatiana’s fancy, and to see Tatiana as the 23-year-old agronomist sent from the Belgorod region (in what is now Russia), setting village hearts aflutter. I want to laugh at tales about the great-grandchildren.

But the children and grand- and great-grandchildren are all in Russia or Russian-controlled territory, on the other side of the war. Russia’s invasion has ruined this family in Ukraine in every way. All the photographs and mementos are left behind in Mala Tokmachka, in a house and a village destroyed by round-the-clock shelling.

With all the Kharchenkos’ relatives in Russia, or Russian-annexed Crimea, there was nowhere else beyond the Tavriiske home for them to go. The couple say they can’t contact their children: Phone calls are now blocked to Crimea from Ukraine, and contacting relatives in Russia could put them at risk of suspicion of collaboration with the enemy. Apps such as WhatsApp are of little use to the vast majority of older Ukrainians such as Volodymyr and Tatiana, who don’t own or have access to smartphones. They have seen the two youngest great-grandchildren only in photos. Now they no longer even have those.

“The two of us, where do we return to?” Volodymyr asks. “There is no electricity, no gas. The windows can still be repaired. But nobody is going to repair the electricity and gas. How can we live there?”

spinner image a man walks on the grounds of the care home in Tavriiske
An older resident of the home walks through its lush gardens.

Many other older residents of the Tavriiske care home have similar stories. And yet they don’t want to leave. They are still recovering from one, or even two, traumatic moves. Here they can walk on the flowery grounds or down to the village shop. The staff who have stayed are friendly and caring. Volunteers help with essential supplies. There are several meals a day — that was the case even during the more than a week when there was no electricity: The staff cooked outside, over an open fire.

spinner image Mykola Kopeiko, 62, outside buildings of a care home in Tavriiske refugees from the embattled villages and towns, in Tavriiske village, Zaporizhia region, Ukraine.
“Here you’re on holiday,” says Mykola Kopeiko of the Tavriiske care home.

“Here we’re like in heaven,” says Mykola Kopeiko, sunning himself on a bench outside one of the buildings, making the best of a dreadful situation. A retired engineer and bus driver, he looks older than his 62 years; he had a tumor removed just before the war. After the operation, he was sent to his house in Orikhiv. Not long after, he went out in the garden to sun himself, just as he’s doing now. “And two Russian shells exploded nearby. I passed out. Then our soldiers took me to the hospital.”

The next thing he knew, the hospital in Orikhiv was hit. “The door just blew out. I don’t remember what happened next. I passed out again. Well, now I’m here. Where do I go? Where should I go? Afterward, if there’s no war, I’ll go somewhere. To some relatives, friends.”

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spinner image Lida, 76.
Kopeiko’s friend Lida also evacuated Orikhiv for Tavriiske.

The house in Orikhiv, built by his parents (who died before the invasion), is a burned-out shell. He lost his phone when his house was destroyed, so he lost all his phone contacts, including for a cousin in Zaporizhzhia. In the care home he has found Lida, 76. “The war introduced us, and now we’re like relatives. We look after each other.”

But the peace in Tavriiske is fragile. The village has been shelled, and the regular thud of nearby artillery destroys any illusion that residents’ conversations with a visiting journalist are merely benign small-town gossip.

“We’re scared,” says nurse Ludmila Osetska when we leave the home. “Because no one knows what will happen tomorrow. Or what kind of tomorrow it’ll be.”

spinner image Residents are loaded onto buses.
In June, buses and ambulances arrived at the Tavriiske care home to move residents to a safer area.

Tomorrow, it turns out, comes a few weeks later. On a swelteringly hot day in early June, I return to Tavriiske with photographer Stas Kozliuk to watch as more than a dozen buses and ambulances park under the trees outside the care home to evacuate the last residents. It’s a scene that’s repeated nearly daily throughout Ukraine, as the war continues to carve up families and diminish the lives of older Ukrainians. The plan for the older Tavriiske residents is to move them to a foster care school for children on the northeast outskirts of the city of Zaporizhzhia.

spinner image Volodymyr Kharchenko is helped off the evacuation bus.
An unsmiling Volodymyr steps down from the bus onto the school grounds in Zaporizhzhia that will become his next home.

It isn’t a happy end. For those who have already endured one displacement, this new move is too much to bear. After the evacuation convoy arrives in Zaporizhzhia, Tatiana and Volodymyr, grim-faced and quiet, step down from the stifling bus onto the school grounds and wait to be told where to go. All their worldly belongings are in a few plastic bags and a leather satchel.

“You’re in classroom number nine,” a staff member calls to residents, then continues: “You’re in classroom number 10. Choose a bed.”

spinner image A man in one of the converted classrooms.
The new, stark accomodations for the Tavriiske evacuees.

The classrooms are nearly bare, furnished only with 12 or more sagging cots. Unlike Tavriiske, the school has not been adapted to meet the needs of older adults, director Oleksandr Starosvitskyi acknowledges. As people in stretchers and wheelchairs are unloaded, bumped up steps and over door sills, to disappear down dark corridors, the indignities of old age in wartime are laid painfully bare.

The new site is farther from the front line. But it’s still not very far. The more optimistic believe the war will be over soon. The less optimistic have another view.

spinner image Mykola Kopeiko in one of the converted classrooms.
Mykola Kopeiko in Zaporizhzhia.

“You don’t think the war will come here?” says Mykola Kopeiko, the retired engineer recovering from his war injury. “The Russians will come here as well.” Moved for a third time without having any say in the matter, he tells me today that he wishes no one had saved him and that he’d been left in the basement of his burned-out house in Orikhiv, to somehow live out the war there on his own terms, at home.

But Orikhiv, still home to Tamara Lupinos’ parents, who at press time continue to hang on in the house where they raised their children, is gradually being leveled to the ground. As we followed the evacuation convoy from Tavriiske (where Starosvitskyi — and his mother — and most of the care-home staff still live; they will travel to work in Zaporizhzhia in shifts), I noticed new shelling damage on the lane, and the town hall in Orikhiv, where we’d met Deputy Mayor Svitlana Mandrych, no longer had a second floor, after two direct Russian artillery strikes.

Mandrych says she — along with the social workers still visiting their older homebound clients — stays in Orikhiv from a sense of duty but also of hope. “We’re waiting for victory,” she tells me in a phone call. “We believe in it.”

Editor’s note: By mid-September, all the Tavriiske care-home residents — including Volodymyr and Tatiana Kharchenko — had been moved again, to locations spread throughout Ukraine.

Kyiv, Ukraine–based British journalist Lily Hyde has written about the war and humanitarian crises for Politico, The Guardian and other publications. In May and June, Hyde, who is fluent in Ukrainian and Russian, traveled by train and car with photographer Oleksii Furman to southeastern Ukraine to conduct interviews and file this special report for AARP The Magazine.

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