Witnessing the impact of a humanitarian disaster is always profoundly challenging. But seeing so many older people affected in what is the world s oldest crisis is particularly confronting.
In a country where one quarter of the population is over 60-years-old, it is not surprising that there are so many older people needing support. What is striking though, is the way so many older people are themselves caring for others, their families and friends, as well as those they have only recently met: thrust together as a result of war.
For those who do need our support, there is a lot to do. Three months after full-scale war began, it is important that the global humanitarian response looks at how it can better prioritise the specific needs of older people.
There are those who remain in their homes in eastern Ukraine, where the fighting has recently intensified. For many, leaving is not an option because of mobility difficulties or a lack of money. For others, their strong sense of belonging means that leaving the familiarity of home to go into the unknown is not a choice they feel they can make.
At the same time, many others have fled their homes, particularly over recent weeks. Dnipro is the first city of sanctuary for those fleeing the Donbas region or other stricken areas, like Mariupol. Consequently, there are huge numbers in need of support, and significant help required.
Many care homes for older people and those with disabilities in eastern Ukraine have evacuated their residents to Dnipro. Public buildings have been adapted to provide shelter to internally displaced people, such as a church that now runs a soup kitchen and has a dormitory to shelter people upstairs. People across the city and beyond are opening their doors to others.
But the story doesn t end there.
Many of the newly arrived older people I met in Dnipro are deeply traumatised. People have often endured shelling, sometimes spending long periods underground, often with little or no food and water. People s journeys to Dnipro were commonly long and difficult and for many the isolation and the sense of separation has impacted them profoundly.
The pain and suffering I encountered was noticeably raw. Many older people burst into tears as they began telling me what had happened to them. Most told me they had only left when things had become absolutely untenable.
The lack of medical supplies came up in many of my conversations with older people. Most often, this is regular medication for everyday health conditions, like heart problems and hypertension. But the lack of supplies and high costs mean people are running out. Many with diabetes do not have insulin.
The local charities I visited in Dnipro and Kharkiv were stretched before February, struggling to provide for people s needs. Now they are stretched even further.
The small community group, Mercy in Dnipro Oblast was set up by people who were displaced from the Donbas region in 2014. They have now moved longer-term residents upstairs to make way for new arrivals. One area is designated for those from Mariupol, a common approach in centres so people from the same area are together. But the increasing need means that rooms are often crammed full.
Despite the tragic circumstances, I will never forget the resilience, humour and comradery shown as we regularly made our way to the air raid shelters in the middle of the night.
Nor will I forget the love and care shown by those affected not only for one another but also for their pets. These pets have not been abandoned, but taken with them on these journeys, and will stay by their side, whatever challenges this war should bring.
We will work alongside our partners, supporting care homes and older displaced people. This includes providing food and hygiene supplies, bathroom facilities and beds, emotional support and care so they can lead more dignified lives. This is part of a wider response to support older people, including refugees in Moldova and those who remain in eastern Ukraine.
We will also continue to amplify the voices of older people caught up in the war in Ukraine, so their experiences, challenges and needs are not forgotten.
Sam Wood is Head of Inclusive Humanitarian Action for HelpAge International and travelled to Dnipro as part of a visit to the country last month.
Find out what we’re doing to help older people in Ukraine.