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Ukraine's elderly often remain behind; here's how they've survived a year of war

Viktor and Liubov Lada in the kitchen of their new apartment. The couple was at home when their previous apartment was hit by Russian artillery.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
Viktor and Liubov Lada in the kitchen of their new apartment. The couple was at home when their previous apartment was hit by Russian artillery.

SLOVIANSK and KYIV, Ukraine — It was late on a Tuesday night in September in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk, about 20 minutes from the front lines of the war with Russia. Liubov Lada had just gone to bed when the apartment she'd lived in with her husband, Viktor, for 63 years was hit by Russian artillery.

The building's exterior wall crashed and fell into the room, covering her with ash and dust, and sending debris everywhere.

Viktor shows a photo of the damaged building where he and his wife used to live.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Viktor shows a photo of the damaged building where he and his wife used to live.

She remembers calling out to Viktor, who had been sitting in the living room. "Vitia! Vitia!," repeating the nickname she used for him, her voice trembling. She found him alive but hurt.

His arm was cut, blood was smeared on the wall. "I can't remember it without fear," Liubov says through tears.

The building where Viktor and Liubov Lada used to live in Sloviansk, Ukraine.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
The building where Viktor and Liubov Lada used to live in Sloviansk, Ukraine.

"I don't know how we survived," says Viktor. "Everything was destroyed, but we survived."

Listen to the Story

Liubov Lada arranges the curtains in the apartment she and her husband moved to after Russian shelling destroyed their old apartment.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Liubov Lada arranges the curtains in the apartment she and her husband moved to after Russian shelling destroyed their old apartment.

The Ladas, both in their 90s, now live in a nearby apartment their grandson found for them. They've filled the space with the things they could salvage: lace curtains, porcelain dolls and a lamp with bright flowers.

Liubov places her hand on Viktor's arm.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Liubov places her hand on Viktor's arm.

They had to clean the couch multiple times after the attack to make it white again, and there's still a hole in the back, left over from a piece of shrapnel.

Viktor Lada and Svitlana Domoratska, a social worker, in the kitchen of the Ladas' new apartment. The Ladas were able to bring a few items from their old home, but many were damaged in the strike.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Viktor Lada and Svitlana Domoratska, a social worker, in the kitchen of the Ladas' new apartment. The Ladas were able to bring a few items from their old home, but many were damaged in the strike.
Pastries sit on the Ladas' kitchen table in their new apartment.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Pastries sit on the Ladas' kitchen table in their new apartment.

The Ladas are among the millions of elderly residents that have remained in Ukraine since Russia invaded in February 2022. The country has the highest proportion of elderly affected by war. According to HelpAge, an international nonprofit focused on the elderly, people over 60 years old make up nearly one-fourth of the population.

Svitlana Domoratska (left), a social worker in Sloviansk, Ukraine, visits and helps elderly Ukrainians like Liubov and Viktor Lada, who need help with getting prescriptions and food, and have been especially isolated since Russia's war began.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Svitlana Domoratska (left), a social worker in Sloviansk, Ukraine, visits and helps elderly Ukrainians like Liubov and Viktor Lada, who need help with getting prescriptions and food, and have been especially isolated since Russia's war began.

In war, the elderly are often the ones who stay behind, either unwilling or unable to evacuate, relying on government pensions, humanitarian aid and the support of their communities to survive.

Svitlana Domoratska goes on house calls in Sloviansk, Ukraine, bringing food and medicine to the city's elderly residents.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Svitlana Domoratska goes on house calls in Sloviansk, Ukraine, bringing food and medicine to the city's elderly residents.

In an apartment complex in Kyiv

Pavlo Komodovskyi and his wife, Tamara Vasylenko, have spent the last year in their apartment building in Kyiv. "One of the defenders of our lines had a stroke," Komodovskyi says, explaining that Vasylenko had a stroke over the winter and spent seven days in the hospital. It has affected her speech and made it hard for her to do everyday tasks.

Pavlo Komodovskyi in his apartment in Kyiv, where he's stayed despite the war.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Pavlo Komodovskyi in his apartment in Kyiv, where he's stayed despite the war.

Komodovskyi is a former military pilot and often speaks using military lingo and metaphors. "I am holding the defensive line — for both of us," he says. Since her stroke, his wife has seemed like two different people, he tells us. Sometimes, she's completely okay, and then, just a moment later, she won't react to anything.

"We're in our late 80s, though," he says. "What can else can you expect?"

Pavlo Komodovskyi and his wife, Tamara Vasylenko, who had a stroke this year, in their kitchen in their apartment in Kyiv.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Pavlo Komodovskyi and his wife, Tamara Vasylenko, who had a stroke this year, in their kitchen in their apartment in Kyiv.

While Vasylenko has been recovering, Komodovskyi has taken over the cooking. When we visit, he's preparing to make borscht, one of his wife's favorites and a Ukrainian specialty. He calls it his "first exam." When NPR first visited the couple, who has been together since they were children, they said that being together was the most important thing in helping them get through the war. On this visit, Komodovskyi reaffirms the sentiment. "It's still the same," he says. "Nothing has changed about that."

The apartment building in Kyiv where Pavlo and his wife, Tamara, live.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
The apartment building in Kyiv where Pavlo and his wife, Tamara, live.

The Kyiv they live in now is also much safer than a year ago. And their children and grandchildren regularly visit.

Down the hallway, a few apartments away, Nadiia Yerkhimovych lives with her son Mykhailo, who goes by Misha. "First she carried me, and then I carried her," he tells us.

Nadiia Yerkhimovych stands with the help of a walker in her home.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Nadiia Yerkhimovych stands with the help of a walker in her home.

When Russia first invaded, Nadiia, who is now 90 years old, was bedridden and in need of medicine and diapers. But now, she's able to walk with the help of a walker, and medical care is far more accessible.

Nadiia Yerkhimovych and her son, Mykhailo, embrace each other in their apartment in Kyiv.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Nadiia Yerkhimovych and her son, Mykhailo, embrace each other in their apartment in Kyiv.

The power outages in Kyiv have been hard, she says, pointing to the candles spread around the surfaces of her bedroom. She also really misses the outside; her building's elevator is broken and an open window isn't quite enough.

"Sometimes I feel better," she says, "sometimes I feel worse." But, she tells us, "I want to live. Doesn't everyone?"

Nadiia Yerkhimovych in her youth.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Nadiia Yerkhimovych in her youth.

It's helpful that she has lived through difficult times before. "It's not my first war," she says, explaining that when she was a child, during World War II, she participated in choirs and singing competitions to stay busy. Before we leave, she sings us the song Prayer for Ukraine, a hymn from 1885.

"Protect our beloved Ukraine," she sings. "Bless us with good fortune — forever and ever more."

A couple's survival represents a resilient people

Back in Sloviansk, Svitlana Domoratska, a social worker who has worked with the Ladas for many years, tells me she's constantly inspired by the couple. "Their survival, their resilience — it's a metaphor for this city," she says. A lightning offensive in the fall by Ukrainian forces pushed the Russian front line further back from Sloviansk, so Russian shelling is far less frequent. City services have resumed and there is more consistent access to water, power and heat. Since the summer, the city's population has doubled. As of February, about 50,000 people live in the city — and about half of those residents need help from social workers, according to the mayor's office.

Liubov Lada misses the home she had carefully styled for many years of her life.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Liubov Lada misses the home she had carefully styled for many years of her life.

When Domoratska heard that the Ladas' apartment had been hit last September, she rushed to help. She stayed with them for hours, cleaning the apartment and making sure they got medical care.

There are still some lingering issues for the couple. "I still have a strange sound in my ears," Liubov Lada says. "It's like frog sound — 'kwa, kwa' — even though it happened five months ago."

Svitlana Domoratska, a social worker in Sloviansk, leaves Viktor and Liubov Lada after her visit.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Svitlana Domoratska, a social worker in Sloviansk, leaves Viktor and Liubov Lada after her visit.

Sometimes they cry and feel sad, they tell us. But life has also gotten better. Their house is warm, the supermarkets are full, and they have family nearby.

"Our story is not about sorrow," Viktor says. "We survived. It's happiness, not sorrow!"

Viktor Lada in the kitchen of the apartment the Ladas moved to after their previous one was damaged by Russian shelling.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Viktor Lada in the kitchen of the apartment the Ladas moved to after their previous one was damaged by Russian shelling.

Hanna Palamarenko contributed to this story from Sloviansk and Kyiv, Ukraine.

Text edited by: Zach Thompson

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
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