The Psychological Toll of the War in Ukraine on Older People
Author: Alice Greider, Older Persons Programmes Officer
To understand the devastating impact of war and conflict on mental health, look no further than Ukraine. Sporadic missile attacks, long periods with no electricity, and daily exposure to violence all contribute to the immense trauma faced by Ukrainians. Across World Jewish Relief’s humanitarian projects, we are providing not only material support, but also psychological support. The need is overwhelming.
The World Health Organization estimates that one in four Ukrainians are at risk of mental health issues because of the war. Targeted attacks on healthcare facilities and a lack of trained psychologists put extra pressure on an already strained health system.
For older people, valuable social networks such as relatives, neighbours and friends have fled, leaving them even more isolated and lonely than before the war. For those who are less mobile, the fear of being unable to run to a bomb shelter stops them from leaving their houses at all. “We will stay here until we die”, they tell us. For some, the violence, bombing and displacement resurfaces memories of similar trauma during World War II, and dementia brings further confusion.
It is doubtful that comprehensive mental health support will be available and accessible to all Ukrainians any time soon. Even as national projects begin to meet the need, they are likely to reach older people later than children and families. But against this backdrop, our partners across Ukraine are working hard to combat the prolonged anxiety that older people are facing.
Although many older people choose to stay in their homes, those nearest the frontlines may have no choice but to make the distressing move to a new place. Our local partner Save Ukraine runs an evacuation hotline and brings older people to one of two temporary residential units where they receive medical care, a safe place to rest and support from a social worker. On a recent visit, a couple from Bakhmut that arrived the night before told us that this was the first calm night’s sleep they’d had in months. Although people only stay for a month at most, the psychological respite it offers is a first step on the road to dealing with the trauma of war.
Across the country, our projects employ staff who visit older people in their homes, bringing food and other essential items. Tamara is alone in Kherson, after her grandchildren evacuated the city. During severe shelling she does not leave her house at all, fearful that death could come at any moment. Through our project, Tamara is visited by a homecare worker three times a week, ensuring she isn’t alone. At first, she found Tamara in tears, fearful and lonely. Our homecare workers are there to comfort older people and reassure them that they are not alone.
Where the impacts of the war are less severe, our partners lead activities promoting physical health, as well as therapeutic activities such as art therapy and group or individual psychological support. It is well evidenced that positive mental health feeds into one’s physical health, and vice-versa, so projects address these together.
In Kharkiv, Sumy, and Kriviy Rih we’ve established safe spaces for people to come and interact with their community, receive psychological support, participate in school lessons or tutoring, and be signposted to vital resources. Sergei, a 67-year-old widower, was evacuated to Kharkiv where he knew no one. Incredibly lonely, he began attending our community centre, participating in singing sessions and receiving psychological support. He started writing poetry over warm cups of tea:
The world was divided into white and black,
White is good, and black is evil,
Black evil cannot conquer the good
The free world will help us in this,
And the light will win anyway.