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AARP The Magazine Special Report: Part 1

War’s Terrible Toll on Ukraine’s Elders

Older Ukrainians are suffering in unique, terrible ways. This is one family's fight for survival

Halyna Lupinos, 87, in her beloved   home in Orikhiv
Halyna Lupinos at her home in Orikhiv, Ukraine
OLEKSII FURMAN

Older Ukrainians — isolated, often poor, in bad health and emotionally tied to their family homes — suffer in unique, terrible ways. The Lupinos family is no exception. The youngest are now refugees, and the elders are rooted to their crumbling house on the front line of the war. Their daughter, Tamara, is desperately trying to unite them all. This is their story.

For Part 2, see: Orphaned Ukraine Elder’s Exodus to Nowhere

Halyna’s daughter, Tamara Lupinos, in Zaporizhzhia
Tamara Lupinos, Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine
OLEKSII FURMAN

Tamara's Choice

TAMARA LUPINOS, a biologist by profession, lives alone in a one-room apartment in an industrial city in southern Ukraine. Tamara, 64, is also a devoted mother, grandmother and daughter who declined better-paying jobs elsewhere to live in Zaporizhzhia, a sprawling city full of Soviet-era buildings perched on the banks of the Dnieper River.

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“Here, I’m close to work,” she tells me when we meet near her apartment, “and just an hour’s drive from my parents.”

Before Feb. 24, Tamara’s life had been orderly, if difficult. Work had been stressful recently at the botanical-research institute where she leads the marketing department; there had been COVID absences as well as a lack of funding. In late February, Tamara, an attractive, well-groomed woman with glittery sneakers and a warm, lively manner, was herself still recovering from a long, difficult bout of COVID and a back injury that made it harder than ever to climb the stairs to her ninth-floor apartment.

Still, each day started joyfully, with a check-in call to her parents in the nearby town of Orikhiv. Usually it was her mother, Halyna, 87, who picked up the phone to share her news — as well as updates on Tamara’s father, Mykola, 92, who had survived cancer and two strokes. For Tamara, this was the first of several calls she would make to them each day before they all went to sleep. There were calls to her daughter, Anastasia, 28, too. Tamara is not only the sole caregiver for her aging parents but also a doting grandmother and a continuing source of emotional support for her daughter, who was then raising her own daughter, 4-year-old Kira, with husband Dmytro, 36, in an apartment on the southern fringes of the city.

Halyna Lupino and her husband, Mykola
Halyna and her husband, Mykola, whose health is fragile, don’t think they would fare better elsewhere, despite Tamara’s nearly daily entreaties.
OLEKSII FURMAN

At 6 a.m. on Feb. 24, everything changed. Tamara’s phone rang. Her daughter, in a panic, blurted out: “Mom, the war’s started. They’re already here. Melitopol is on fire. We’re coming to you.”

Tamara Lupino's daughter, Anastasia, with her husband, Dmytro, and daughter, Kira, at the beach in happier times
From left: Tamara’s daughter, Anastasia, with her husband, Dmytro, and daughter, Kira, at the beach in happier times
Courtesy Lupinos family

Tamara was stunned. War? She had paid scant attention to the reports of Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s borders or to warnings from the United States that a full-scale invasion was imminent. She wasn’t alone. Ukrainian authorities had made few preparations for defense or evacuation, certain that Russia would not venture beyond eastern Ukraine, where a deadly conflict had been simmering for eight years.

But now missiles were falling all over Ukraine. Russia had launched air and ground attacks from the north, south and east, killing civilians and destroying infrastructure. By a terrible twist of fate, four generations of the Lupinos family were caught in the middle of this onslaught. Anastasia lived across the river from her mom, near the road to Melitopol, some 70 miles south, where there were Russian tanks in the streets. And Tamara’s parents lived in Orikhiv, a small town on the road to Mariupol, where the world would watch unspeakable devastation unfold in the weeks ahead.

Anastasia and her family arrived at Tamara’s tiny one-room flat just hours after the Russian invasion began. The elevator was out of order, as usual, so the young couple trudged up the stairs, hauling cases of bottled water. Tamara tried to soothe Kira and answer her questions — but nobody had any answers. That night “the children,” as Tamara calls her daughter’s family, took turns on guard duty so they could alert the others in case of shelling. When the air-raid sirens wailed their warnings, Tamara could not make it down nine floors and to the basement of the school opposite her building. Instead, she spent the first of many long nights of the war sheltering in the bathroom.

Map showing locations of war in Ukraine and places where the Lupinos family is
Illustration by Steve Stankiewicz

The early nightmare days of the invasion unspooled with terrifying speed. By March 1, Russian forces had surrounded Mariupol and were 25 miles from the Lupinos family home in Orikhiv. Cut off from food and medical supplies, Orikhiv, it seemed, would be the next town to fall.

Instead, it held out, and Ukrainian forces dug in, forming a front line just south of town, across agricultural land dotted with historic villages. Then the bombardment commenced. Over the next weeks, those who could get away — largely younger people with children — fled on dangerous Highway H08, north to Zaporizhzhia. Most of the older residents, Halyna and Mykola Lupinos among them, stayed behind.

In a war that forces brutal choices, Tamara Lupinos was caught between saving her parents or her “children.” Her parents, in fragile health, needed her more — but it was now increasingly perilous to get to them. And where would they all go? Her daughter’s family was already staying in her ninth-floor apartment in a city that was being hit sporadically by missiles. “It was constant stress — sirens, sleeping in our clothes,” Tamara recalls. “And I was with my granddaughter all the time: ‘La-la-la, time to get up and run to the bomb shelter.…’ ”

Meanwhile, she called her parents every morning. “I asked them so many times to leave.” Still, she knew they wouldn’t; they were tied to their home. Tamara’s brother is buried in Orikhiv. Her father, infirm, couldn’t travel. Safety and comfort elsewhere seemed questionable at best. “My mother tells me, ‘I understand how much you worry, but there he’ll be stuck in one room, and here he can go out and breathe the fresh air, trees, flowers.’ ”

It’s clearly a conversation Tamara has had with her mother, and with herself, many times. “What can be done?” she repeats. “What?”

For two months after the front line reached Orikhiv, Highway H08 — the road between Tamara and her parents — was impassable. It ran through deadly crossfire as Russian forces attempted to cut off the Ukrainian army and advance on Zaporizhzhia. Tamara could not risk visiting her parents or organize a car to bring them to her.

They still spoke several times daily, if the phone connection worked. Relatives and neighbors who had remained in Orikhiv kept an eye on the older couple, as did social service workers and volunteers. But for Tamara, this was excruciating. “Day and night, I feared for my parents,” she says. “I still wake up in the morning sometimes and think, No, it’s a terrible dream.

Halyna continued to play down her own difficulties, worrying more about the rest of the family, including Tamara’s aunt, proud and staunchly pro-Ukrainian, who lived in the nearby city of Kherson, which was now occupied by Russian forces. Every morning when Tamara called, before she could even speak, her mother would ask three questions: How are you? How are the children? What about Kherson? “Only afterward would she speak about herself,” says Tamara.

In April, Tamara’s daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter left for western Ukraine, the safest area of the country. They had tried to get Tamara to go with them. She refused; it was too far from her parents.

“When my mother found out the children had left and I stayed, she cried for three days,” Tamara tells me over a coffee that she forgets to drink, she’s so caught up in the painful drama of her family in wartime. “My mother said, ‘Why didn’t you go? The children need you. We’re already old. We need you to take care of yourself.’ Tears everywhere. And my daughter too: ‘Why didn’t you come with us?’ ”

On May 1, Orikhiv was hit by a heavy wave of Russian shelling. Tamara’s niece called, crying. Her building had been hit, and she could see bodies from her balcony. Then Tamara got a call from her parents’ neighbor. “When did you last speak to your parents?” the neighbor asked. “Call them.”

“I said, ‘Something terrible has happened to my niece.’ And he said, ‘No, no, call your parents. Their house has been hit.’ ”

A Family Apart

“COME IN, COME IN!” Halyna Lupinos leads me through the veranda and into the living room of the traditional, one-story brick house where she and Mykola live in Orikhiv. I have traveled south on Highway H08 to visit Tamara’s parents, along with Natasha Lichman, one of eight social workers who still make daily rounds, by bicycle, to older clients. Low-rise, leafy Orikhiv was founded by German settlers in the early 19th century. The Germans are long gone, but the handsome, solid town hall and other nearby buildings remain their legacy. Before that, this was the heartland of the Cossacks, escaped serfs and soldiers who set up a free state in what is now the city and region of Zaporizhzhia. Many families, like the Lupinoses, have lived here for generations; “Lupinos” is a quintessentially Cossack surname.

a bombed-out house near the Lupinos home in Orikhiv
A bombed-out house near the Lupinos home in Orikhiv.
OLEKSII FURMAN

The May 1 missiles, in fact, just missed the Lupinoses’ home, destroying the house next door while blowing out Halyna and Mykola’s windows and damaging the roof. The electricity was cut, and the rose and currant bushes in the back garden were incinerated. The couple were shaken but uninjured — and determined to stay.

For this is where Tamara grew up, where her mother was a teacher and her daughter attended a prestigious school. The family living room is heartbreakingly beautiful, filled with plants, lace and photographs. When I compliment Halyna, she asks, “What beauty? All the beauty has gone. It all went flying.” Behind the curtains, the front windows are boarded up with cardboard and plastic sheeting, the sills littered with broken glass.

Orikhiv Deputy Mayor Svitlana Mandrych 
Orikhiv Deputy Mayor Svitlana Mandrych.
OLEKSII FURMAN

Orikhiv and the surrounding settlements had a prewar population of over 19,000. Three of the nearby villages have been occupied by Russian forces since March 3; the remaining settlements are under constant bombardment, and some are practically uninhabitable, without access to gas, electricity or water. The town council organizes regular evacuation buses. Still, as of late May, about 4,500 people remained, according to Deputy Mayor Svitlana Mandrych. The vast majority of them are older, mostly women.

“They say, ‘Where will we go? We have always lived here,’ ” Mandrych explains. “It’s hard to persuade people to leave their homes when they hope this will all end quickly.”

Mandrych meets me at the town hall wearing a black vyshyvanka, a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt. She’s mourning her nephew, killed outside a humanitarian-aid point nine days earlier. Across the road, in a low white building that once housed a school for girls, relief supplies are stockpiled for residents, including the Lupinoses. The eight brave social workers — women, mostly in their 40s and 50s — are waiting in the schoolyard with their bikes. Dangling from the handlebars are reusable bags, bulging with free loaves of bread that the women will deliver to the homes of the elders who’ve stayed behind. The social workers tell me their nerves are badly frayed after another night of shelling. Then they show me their delivery van. The holes in its side are a grim memorial to Mandrych’s nephew, killed by shrapnel from a missile that hit while the social workers were picking up bread.

Social worker Natasha Lichman, far left, and colleagues prepare to deliver bread
Social worker Natasha Lichman, far left, and colleagues prepare to deliver bread.
OLEKSII FURMAN

“We’re scared now even of a small gathering of people,” says one, caught between tears and anger. “We’re at home when they start firing, but we still get up and go into town. Every babushka [“old lady,” or “grandma”] gets bread. Every babushka gets humanitarian aid. We look for medicine for the babushki. We bring it to them. We cook for them. And we are working under fire.”

“We do everything possible, and everything impossible too,” says Ludmila Zhbankova, director of social services.

The women air some of their grievances to me, about the adult children who have fled this shell-shocked town, abandoning their vulnerable parents to the care of social services, and who then have the audacity to complain that the social workers aren’t doing enough.

“No one complains,” Zhbankova corrects, putting a positive spin on things. “Some daughters do call, the ones who have left, and ask us to block up the windows.”

“Feed the dogs and cats,” a colleague chimes in.

“Most of all, do you know what people need?” Zhbankova continues. “Our heartfelt attention. But if each of us has 15 to 17 people to look after, where can we get that much heart?”

“There’s enough heart,” Lichman says. “But not enough time.”

The rhythm of this town is now dictated by war. Orikhiv’s few remaining residents hurry to complete their errands early in the day, during the brief morning lull in shelling, before rushing back to the relative safety of their homes or basements, to shelter. I follow Lichman’s bicycle back to the Lupinoses’ house, down residential streets lined with blooming irises and poppies — here a house without a roof; another, just an empty shell behind a gate peppered with shrapnel holes, where the smell of burned, smoldering ruins mingles with the sweet scent of blossoming acacia trees.

For the town’s diminished emergency services, every day presents a deadly race to fix windows and roofs, to repair electricity and water supplies, only to watch them be damaged or destroyed the next day. The hospital has been hit. So have several schools, the pension fund building, the cemetery. Two shops remain open, selling a few basic goods; there is no working pharmacy.

Mykola had a bad fall recently and is almost blind, Halyna says. She has a hernia from trying to lift him. Sometimes she is overcome by nervous exhaustion and has to lie down. She struggles to explain to us what it’s like to be constantly shelled. “Everything trembles. Everything shakes. My husband can sleep sometimes, but I can’t sleep at all. Not. At. All,” she emphasizes.

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“Wouldn’t it be better to leave the town for someplace safer?” I suggest. But Halyna answers that her daughter, Tamara, has only one room on the ninth floor, no lift, and there are the children....

Looking at the photos on the walls and propped on tables, I see a rich life built upon generations of family and neighbors and former pupils. It started, though, as it’s now ending — with war. During World War II, Mykola helped carry the wounded to the hospital when he was just 11 or 12. Halyna, who worked all her life as a teacher, began her own schooling during that war.

“I’d just started first grade when the Second World War came. There were no pencils, no notebooks, no textbooks, nothing,” she tells me. “And then there was the famine! We suffered through it all. And now it’s happening again.”

Nina Halchanska, 84, mourns the loss of people and town life.
Nina Halchanska, 84, mourns the loss of people and town life.
OLEKSII FURMAN

Despite difficulty moving about, she insists on walking me to the gate when I leave. “Our childhood was taken away,” she says. “Our youth was taken away by deprivation and hunger, and now our old age is being taken away.”

Lichman, on her morning rounds, hurries to finish, but everyone she visits longs to talk. There’s no TV signal anymore, and no postal service bringing newspapers to elderly subscribers, so they are starved for news and company.

Eighty-four-year-old Nina Halchanska waits for Lichman by her garden gate and tells me, “Now there’s no one to cook for me. Natasha hasn’t got time — she’s got other old ladies to go to.” For all the heartbreak of the Lupinoses’ situation, there are others who are worse off. Nina has no one and nowhere to go. She has outlived both her sons; other relatives are far away, in England. She has pain in her hands, diabetes, a broken roof and broken windows. “I’m the only one on the street now. I love people, and there are no people,” she says. “It’s such a shame, this war. ”

Lichman tries to cheer Nina by promising to visit again soon; she’ll bring medicine and top up her phone. Most of her clients have no family, and sometimes Lichman visits them even on her days off. “They greet you with tears in their eyes because you still came,” Lichman says.

After her husband’s workplace in Orikhiv was bombed, Lichman continued to work but sent her husband and son to a safer place. Now, after midday, when the shelling starts up, she races home to drop off her bike and feed the dog, then joins me to travel to Zaporizhzhia to visit her family.

As we drive north, passing through numerous checkpoints and farming villages, she shows me photos on her phone of her older clients. That one — look, he was handsome like the French actor Alain Delon when he was young! This couple met in the cemetery. This one writes beautiful poetry but has left Orikhiv.

Lichman finishes longingly: “I really hope our clients who have left will come back.”

Two weeks later, as the war grinds forward, I call Tamara to check in. The remaining windows in her parents’ house were blown out when another missile landed nearby on June 4. Now they live in darkness day and night, their windows boarded up.

Tamara Lupinos and her granddaughter
Tamara and her granddaughter.
Courtesy Lupinos family

There is no gas in the whole town, and problems with the water supply are approaching critical; the council continues to urge the last women, children and older people to leave.

After her daughter’s family moved to western Ukraine and her parents’ house was damaged again, Tamara thought she could persuade Halyna and Mykola to leave Orikhiv. She looked for a bed to put in the flat and told her mother to pack up documents, underwear and a few clothes. “Nothing matters that’s there in the house. It’s only things,” she told Halyna.

But the couple’s attachment to the house they built and garden they planted are insurmountable obstacles. The once close-knit family remains separated by the war, with no idea when they’ll see one another again.

Tamara spends hours each day on the phone with granddaughter Kira, who loves to play teacher and doctor. “She says, ‘I’m Doctor Kira. Who shall we treat today?’ I say, ‘Granny Halyna. She has a headache.’ ‘Then she needs to lie down and rest,’  says Kira.”

During the remaining hours of the day, Tamara makes calls, looking for medicines to send to her parents or plastic sheeting to cover up broken windows, and checking whether social worker Lichman managed to visit them today. And every morning, noon and evening before bed, there are the endlessly repeating conversations with her mother.

“This weekend I said, ‘Enough, Mom. Enough.’ And she said, ‘Child, I understand you, but do you understand me?’ She hopes that all this will end soon. That we just have to bear it a little longer.”

Left: Journalist Lily Hyde speaking with Halyna; right: photographer Oleskii Furman
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.'

The Invisible Elders of the War

 

War’s impact on older people, from Ethiopia to Syria and now Ukraine, continues to be devastating. Yet this age group rarely factors in humanitarian responses. “Older people are invisible in terms of the work done to protect civilians during armed conflict,” says Bridget Sleap, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and principal author of “No One Is Spared,” a report (funded by AARP International) on wartime abuses against older people.

 

In Ukraine, about 1 in every 4 citizens is over age 60. An estimated 18 million Ukrainians need assistance, many of them older individuals who lack food, medicine and electricity. HelpAge International, a global network of organizations supporting older people (AARP is a member), has aptly dubbed the current conflict “the oldest humanitarian crisis in the world.” A rapid needs assessment by HelpAge in eastern Ukraine in March found that 99 percent of older residents didn’t want to be evacuated, despite lacking many essentials. Cindy Cox-Roman, CEO of HelpAge USA, points out that older Ukrainians are both resilient and vulnerable. “As we age, we become better at regulating our emotions and problem-solving,” she says. “But we can also become overwhelmed when confronted with daily stressors. I’m sure many older Americans can relate to the feeling of disorientation that would accompany leaving behind what you know and love dearly.”

 

Want to Help Older Ukrainians?

 

Consider donating to:

 

Or give to other charities providing assistance to all Ukrainians, such as: