For older Ukrainians in front-line cities, visits from social workers bring comfort In Sloviansk, many of those who remain are over 60. Social workers help with food, medicine and cleaning. An 86-year-old calls her social worker "Firefly," saying, "She brings light in a dark time."

For older Ukrainians in front-line cities, visits from social workers bring comfort

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1123139855/1123559155" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Many of the people still living along the front lines of war in Ukraine are elderly. Because of age or health, they've stayed behind, with difficult access to food, water, heat and medicine. And on top of those challenges, they deal with nightly shelling and missile attacks. NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM BLARING)

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: The air alarms are blaring in Slovyansk, a city about 20 kilometers from the front line in Ukraine's east, when we meet up with Svitlana Domoratska, a social worker here. She leads us to an apartment building in the center of the city. The seven-story building only has three tenants left. Most of them are elderly, housebound, alone, too sick to leave, and it's Svitlana's job to visit them multiple times a week.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS CRACKING)

NADWORNY: We step over pieces of glass. The stairwell's windows were broken last week when a missile hit the building across the street.

SVITLANA DOMORATSKA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: We're here to visit Larisa. She's afraid of us using her last name.

LARISA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Larisa greets us with her walker. She's 76 and in poor health. She can't go up or down stairs, so she doesn't leave this fourth-floor apartment.

LARISA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "Aren't you afraid to come here?" she asks us.

LARISA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: With the bombs and the sirens, it's only Svitlana who comes. She brings food and medicine. She helps cook and clean. But it isn't the front lines, which have been so close for so long, that worry Larisa. It's the upcoming winter.

LARISA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "It'll be very cold," she says. There's an evacuation order for Slovyansk because there isn't heat, but Larissa says she can't leave.

LARISA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "This apartment is everything I have," she says. She points to an electric heater at her feet.

LARISA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "It warms a little," she says.

LARISA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "And I'll wear my sweaters, and I'll wear my fur coat."

As we leave, social worker Svitlana explains she's worried about the winter, too. Even in the spring and summer, when things were warmer, the elderly here, who live alone, whose families have died or fled - they were dying in their apartments. They didn't have food. Before the war, the city had 40 social workers like Svitlana. Now, there are just 10. But the number of homebound to visit - it stayed about the same.

DOMORATSKA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "It's our job to sit with them," she says - "to be their family, to know their whole lives."

DOMORATSKA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Their whole lives are here, and they don't want to or they don't think they can leave. We head to a second apartment building to meet another resident who hasn't left amid the sound of additional explosions.

DOMORATSKA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Does that just become normal?

DOMORATSKA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "Yes," she says, "but I visit no matter what."

Anna, who lives two floors up, is 86, hard of hearing and partially blind.

ANNA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Svitlana has brought bread. Anna only has two slices left. When she sits on her bed, she's dressed in layers and a thick wool vest. There are religious posters tacked up on the walls. Flies swarm around food remnants on a side table.

ANNA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "I was born here in Slovyansk," she says. She remembers a time when life was much better. She was a teacher.

ANNA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: She shows us photos of her students. Before the war, they used to visit, bring her food. But now, she says...

ANNA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "I'm all alone here, and loneliness is the worst thing that a person can ever experience." While we're sitting with her, there are multiple explosions.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

NADWORNY: The windows rattle after each boom.

ANNA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "I'm afraid. I don't sleep at all," she says, sobbing.

ANNA: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

NADWORNY: She kisses the cross on the necklace she wears around her neck as she wipes her tears.

ANNA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "I'm going to say a prayer for you to keep you safe," she says.

ANNA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "All old ladies would do the same for you," she says. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Slovyansk, Ukraine.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.