ZOiS Spotlight 24/2020

Living alone in old age: challenges posed by Covid-19 in rural Ukraine

by Ilona Grabmaier 17/06/2020
An elderly couple in Western Ukraine. © Oleksandr Rupeta / Alamy Stock Foto

The ageing process presents numerous challenges for people all over the world. During an unprecedented global health crisis like the current coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in the large-scale suspension of economic and social activities throughout the world, the issue of how to provide proper care for the elderly becomes even more relevant. In Ukraine, this was already a difficult issue for many people as a result of global migration and the dismantling of the welfare state as part of neoliberal policy implementation.

Negotiation of caregiving responsibilities

Analogous to developments in other conservative welfare states such as Germany and Austria, domestic politics in Ukraine promote notions and images which convey the message that the state’s primary role is to put in place the necessary policy frameworks for families to provide “appropriate” care for relatives in need. This notion of cohesion within families is not only a key political ideal; it is a core aspect of many rural dwellers’ self-perception. Discourses on care in Ukraine largely uphold the dichotomy between the “modern” state and the “traditional” family, including the assumption that older people will be cared for mainly by relatives.

Current forms of elderly care

Local discourses emphasise that good elderly care essentially consists of starting a family, raising children, and building and maintaining a house that can be exchanged for care at a later time. A house, together with a piece of land, is often an elderly person’s most valuable asset. Due to the high level of outmigration by the younger generations, however, the Ukrainian real estate market, especially in rural regions, is experiencing a significant decline in value, posing a growing obstacle to the exchange of “property for elderly care”.

People who do not have children of their own or whose children are, for various reasons, unable or unwilling to care for their parents also have the possibility of bequeathing their house or apartment, i.e. their old age provision, to distant relatives or acquaintances in exchange for care in old age. Recently, it has also become increasingly common for relatives working abroad to employ women from the village or nearby communities to look after elderly people at home.

Unlike the situation during the Soviet era, when retirement pensions provided a reasonable standard of living, the low value of today’s pensions means that many elderly people are reliant on financial top-ups and personal support from their children or other relatives in order to make ends meet. Despite the idealised notions of family cohesion promoted by state and society, families are often unable or unwilling to provide adequate security. This may be due to a lack of financial resources, but it also reflects the fact that relatives who have migrated and live far away and still send money are not physically present to provide the emotional support and care that many older people would expect or wish for.

Uncertain times for senior citizens living alone

In consequence, senior citizens who live alone due to the migration of the younger generations face numerous uncertainties, many of them amplified by the pandemic. Local social services and local communities do their best to provide assistance to vulnerable senior citizens, e.g. in the form of food parcels and help with shopping, but this assistance is generally only provided if the persons concerned have no children of their own. Many senior citizens whose offspring live abroad are therefore reliant on neighbours to help them cope with the challenges of daily life, an aspect which tends to be overlooked in the public debate. These relationships with neighbours can only be sustained over the long term, however, if a favour provided is repaid within a reasonable timescale and in an appropriate form.

Access to care and support therefore depends primarily on the elderly person’s ability to negotiate a relationship with neighbours, whereby one of the primary considerations is what can be regarded as “appropriate” recompense. This means that senior citizens who are themselves still able to offer or arrange some kind of assistance or who receive financial support from relatives abroad have a clear advantage. However, as many family members living abroad have become unemployed, at least temporarily, due to the crisis, they themselves are experiencing financial difficulties at present, making it difficult or impossible to send cash to relatives back home. As a result, many senior citizens feel abandoned not only by the state and the local authorities but also, to some extent, by their own families.

Future challenges

Although numerous studies confirm that crises tend to strengthen the public’s trust in the state and the local authorities, the example of senior citizens living alone in Ukraine presents a more nuanced picture. This vulnerable group often feels neglected. If the state relies primarily on the family to provide care for the elderly, problems inevitably arise when relatives migrate abroad due to a lack of jobs at home and are no longer available to care for the elderly in person. In combination with a global health and economic crisis like the present one, the inadequacies of idealised family care become all the more evident.

Ilona Grabmaier is a social anthropologist. She was a guest scholar at ZOiS from February until the end of April 2020.