February 2020 Lviv Ukraine

What did you do in the evening after a working day when you were 24? Possibly you were just too tired to do anything as you just started your first demanding job. Or you spent what little time was left on your favourite hobby.

Oksanka made a different choice. She dedicates a serious part of her free time to support inhabitants of the Lviv municipal residence for the elderly (a “Pensionat”), in the outskirts of this Ukrainian city. Besides celebrations with St. Nicolas, she organises handicraft master classes, dance therapy or a photo course on two evenings per week. It takes her 45 minutes by public transport and on foot to get there (and the same time back). All this as a volunteer…

Oksanka has gathered a whole team of young collaborators around her, most of her age. They help with the activities or do fundraising via the internet.

Together they named the organisation

“Starist na radist”

which is a little wordplay. A traditional saying is: “Starist ne radist”. This means freely translated “old age brings sorrow” while the name of Oksana’s organisation means: “Old age is a happy time” clearry describing the aim: bring some happiness in the life of the residents.

Staristnaradist merchandise with typical phrases used by elderly to the younger. In this case: “why are you so thin”

Tonight there is a movie in one room of the “Club” while in the other (during day time used for physiotherapy) there is a workshop to make candles. Her charisma works wonders with the old people. When she enters the whole the room lights up. Osanka has a kind word for everyone.

We are given a little tour through the “Pensionat” that houses 311 residents and is the largest out of three municipal homes. Built during communist times it had a superficial renovation 5 years ago. Two residents share a small room with private toilet and shower. There is food (described as “healthy”). Residents are supposed to help each other in emergencies as there is no warning system.

Though clearly traces of heavy use are visible there is a feeling of tenderness. On the walls are bright paintings made by volonteers and care has been taken to keep everything clean.

 

On the third floor half way the corridor lives Olena (85) with her roommate. She came to Lviv in 2014 from Kramatorsk fleeing the hostilities in Donbass (which started just there, near Slovjansk): “As a young child, I witnessed what happened in the war and later what the Russians did to us. I was alone as my parents died earlier and I wanted to be as far away from it all. On television, I saw the major of Lviv saying we were all welcome here. So I took the train when it was still possible. As I had nothing here, though later some distant family came here  in western Ukraine for the same reason. I landed at the pensionat and have been living here ever since.“

Though small, Olena’s room is cosy. It has a balcony and she dries bread on the heating radiators (photo below) so the birds come and visit her to keep her company. She has no one else. “It is ok here, I am grateful to the mayor”.

In Ukraine it is tradition and a social obligation for the children to look after the parents by taking them into their own house, if they cannot live on their own. Or actually when the family already lives together as the children stayed at home also after marriage. Living in a “Pensionat” is somewhat exceptional and for those that have no other options. The general rule is a contribution of 25% of the pension is paid as rent. For those who can afford more, it is now 5000 Hryvna (200 euro) per month.

Why this focus on elderly? “I was raised by her grandparents while my own parents were at work abroad. I simply find them interesting as they have so many stories and experiences. Also the elderly have a hard time in our society.”She choose a study where she could do her thesis on elderly and after graduating she decided to start Staristnaradist. It was on October 14th 2017 she remembers clearly.

During her studies in Clinical Psychology, Oksanka investigated how the residents felt about their stay in the pensionat. The outcome was that 25% hated it, 50% where very happy and 25% made the beste of it as they realised they had no other choice. For Staristnaradist the aim is to help de last quarter to really feel at home and happy. It seems to work.

What are your plans with Starist na Radist? “I do not know actually. I think maybe two months ahead. Sometimes I think it would be nice we would not have 10 young people in the team but 100. And we could do more and more frequent in more pensionats. Actually we raised several thousand Euro to buy washing machines and good furniture already. We will see. Doing this gives me a lot of satisfaction and as long that is the case it is ok for me.”

The Staristnaradist team reminds me of stars (zirki in Ukrainian) lighting up the evening sky. One of many civil social activities in this country.

 

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