In the early days of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, I saw on CNN an interview with two older women in one of the towns being attacked. Both told the interviewer that they had no plans to evacuate, that they would stay where they were. Because they were standing in front of a large apartment complex, I assumed that was their home and that they were widows. They wore the familiar outfits of older Ukrainian women: long, peasant like dresses, sturdy shoes and babushkas on their heads. They looked like the archetypal grandmother: genial but no nonsense, with their feet solidly planted on their homeland.
I’ve read that Ukraine has one of the highest percentages of elderly in the world: In 2018, more than one-fifth of the country’s population were over the age of 60. That means many older Ukrainians are facing a horrible choice: Should they stay in their homes, which could be bombed or controlled by Russians, or should they flee the place they’ve lived most (or all) of their lives for the safety of another country?
It made me wonder what I would do in that situation. At what age does it become too late to start over, to move to a whole new place, whether it’s Poland, other parts of Europe or even the U.S.? If you’ve lived in the same town your whole life, that’s where you married and raised a family. You have a network of old friends, including ones you went to grade school with, and you probably belong to a church that is the core of your community.
Your apartment is full of precious items you’ve collected over a lifetime: dishes and silverware that were wedding gifts; framed photos of family; the sewing machine and piano that are family heirlooms; the furniture that shows a lifetime of use and care. All of these would be left behind.
It’s an easier decision for young parents who are responsible for the well-being of their children. There’s no question you need to take your children someplace safe. Even if you’re not responsible for someone else’s life, and you’re younger than 70, you still have enough energy and years in front of you to start over, find a new home and job in a new country.
But in your 70s, 80s and older, you would have to calculate how much longer you have to live. Is it worth leaving your homeland? Perhaps the conquering Russians, if that’s how it ends, would let old women and men quietly live out the rest of their lives. It might be difficult; there might be food shortages; it might be harder to get your medications or see a doctor. But you could die in your town, maybe even in your home.
“Better to die in your own bed,” I imagine those Ukrainian women saying, realistically facing the future. My heart goes out to them and all the older ones faced with a difficult decision and unbearable situation.