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October 1, 2023
Older People

International Day of Older Persons: A Forgotten Generation


Two women looking out of window

Written by Beth Saffer, Head of Older People Programmes at World Jewish Relief

This Sunday, 1st October 2023, is International Day of Older Persons. This is a day in the calendar which, unlike for example International Women’s Day, does not see much fanfare, but since 1990 it has been used as a focal point across the globe to draw attention to issues affecting older People.

Thanks to development, especially of healthcare, the world is ageing, and fast. By 2050 the UN Population Fund estimate that 1.6 billion people will be over 65 years old. This Older Persons Day is dedicated to protection of Older Persons’ rights within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and calls on Governments and UN entities to: “ensure the active and meaningful participation of all stakeholders, including civil society, national human rights institutions and older persons themselves, in the work on strengthening solidarity among generations and intergenerational partnerships.”

As a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) who has been working in Ukraine for three decades, we are acutely aware of the challenges these well-meaning objectives throw up for Ukrainian society today. Most painful, perhaps, is the breakup of generations of families, caused by Russia’s war. An estimated 6.1 million people have left the country and 5.1 million people are internally displaced. Of those who have left and are now refugees, at least 70% are women (as men aged 18-60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine (OECD).

Older people's hands together

Understandably, a key focus is on the challenges for those who have left their lives behind – integrating into new communities, within Ukraine and beyond, language and culture changes, separation from partners, and uncertainty about when or if they will return home. But for those left behind, the loss of family networks is surely felt most acutely by Ukraine’s older contingent. Estimates point to as many as 84% of older people having stayed behind, even refusing evacuation within Ukraine for fear of the unknown, high costs of rental properties, frailty, and strong connections to their homes and land.

Prior to the full-scale invasion, Ukraine already had an ageing population caused by economic migration and a slowing birth rate (OSW). Since 2022, the proportion of Ukraine’s population over the age of 60 has risen to around 24% and by 2030 it is set to be the ‘oldest’ country in Europe.

This issue is further compounded by the lack of sheltered accommodation and appropriate nursing and residential care available in Ukraine. Caring for older relatives has historically been more culturally normal in Ukraine than in many Western countries. People try to keep relatives at home, even in cases of advanced dementia, causing strain on family relationships, economic burden and the burden of care typically falling to women. Without younger generations around, strain on an already over-stretched care system has led to over-crowding in State run institutions which are under-staffed and under resourced at best.

Older person with homecare worker

Human rights and disability groups have called on the Ukrainian Government not to build more institutions but to keep their focus on reform of the care system and deinstitutionalisation, but this is a long, protracted progress.

Irina was born in Kramatorsk and was a leading engineer for 42 years before retiring. She was married and had two children – her son and grandson live about six hours away, and her daughter evacuated to Poland. She was left completely alone in Kramatorsk, all her neighbours left, and her roof and fence were damaged by bombing, yet she refused to leave her home and garden, which she is strongly connected to.

A woman in the garden of her war damaged home in Shevchenkove, Mykolaiv Oblast, Ukraine.
Photo credit: Zachary Tarrant from Insulate Ukraine

“Of course, I’m scared, I worry about my children and grandchildren. I’m afraid of explosions and destructions. I sit in the basement under air-raid sirens and think: why? The only thing left for us, elderly people to do is pray. I do hope that the city will survive, and we will be together again”.

World Jewish Relief’s local partner organisation, based in Kryvyi Rih, provided firewood, and keeps in contact with Irina every day.

“I highly appreciate all those who support me in such tough times. Today, everyone needs help, and I’m thankful for not being left out. [Thanks to this help] I feel more confident and I’m sure I won’t be abandoned in my time of need. I can call my case manager any time, and she always finds the time to listen to me.”

Among so many things that Ukrainians have lost since the start of Russia’s invasion in February 2022 – land, housing, property, jobs – not to mention the estimated 26,800 Ukrainians who have lost their lives and been injured as a result of warfare or attacks on civilians according to UN OCHA, the loss of one’s family must be among the biggest sting and it is felt most acutely by Ukraine’s older citizens.

We must act now and continue to be there for those left behind. Our partners, both within the Jewish community and beyond, continue to provide daily support to thousands of older people, through homecare, home repairs, home visits, phone calls, online and in-person activities, medical care, winter relief, the list goes on. This has a huge impact on wellbeing and preventing the crippling loneliness and isolation which is so damaging, and ensures older people’s active and meaningful participation in society.