Ukraine: How War Affects the Elderly and Health Systems

Since the war between pro-Russian separatists and government forces in Eastern Ukraine began, living conditions have changed for the worse. A war always affects the weakest and most vulnerable population. In Ukraine, more than a million people have been displaced from their homes; 60% of those are elderly. In some cities and villages, most people stayed because they were too old, disabled, or just did not want to leave their homes. They had to find shelter in their basement or hide out in bomber shelters for months during gunfire.

Living conditions have been appalling and the winter especially caused havoc. The cold and stress worsened the health conditions of all Ukrainians, particularly the elderly, many of whom already suffer from chronic illnesses and cannot defend themselves like the younger population. Last November, the government cut off services to all rebel-held areas. As a result, the elderly have not received their pensions in months and are dependent on food donations for daily meals. People are in danger of starvation in many villages and most elderly have lived without electricity and water for the last few months. Water may be available at wells, however, those may be difficult to reach and the quality of the water cannot be guaranteed. Besides the lack of food, there is also limited access to basic health care and medical supplies for elderly. Health workers have left the hospitals, medical facilities are damaged, and shelves in drug stores are empty. Many elderly die from treatable chronic conditions such as hypertension or heart problems due to poor living conditions, lack of treatment and medicine. No one knows how many have died by now since no one keeps track of the deaths related to malnutrition or medical shortages.

Thankfully, non-governmental organizations have come to Ukraine to help. Médecins sans Frontières (MSF)/Doctors without Borders is an organization that has provided medical services for people in Eastern Ukraine. People can call and be seen by a nurse or doctor at home. MSF also provides mobile clinics where up to sixty people per day can be seen at any advertised location. Dr. Polyakov, a MSF doctor in Donetsk, Ukraine, tells the New York Times that so often he has to turn away patients because he does not have the right medications in stock or the prices for the ones available have risen substantially and can no longer be afforded by his patient. Around 90% of his patient population is elderly. The doctor’s work is challenging as Ukraine puts limits on the kind and amount of supplies that they can bring into the country and eventually use. In addition, United Nations workers need special documents to travel through the war-torn area, which limits the delivery of aid and causes the crisis to worsen.

During war time, the most vulnerable population is the one suffering the most. The elderly need special care and often do not have the coping mechanisms to deal with stress and anxiety. In Ukraine, the elderly are dependent on aid from non-governmental organization such as Doctors without Borders. We can now hope that the crisis will end soon and the elderly will receive the basic health care they need to survive.

Martina Lesperance is a Health Educator and Screening Technician in El Paso, Texas.

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