In the fog of dementia, a grandmother learns time and again that her country is at war.


Every morning, Olga Boichak’s grandmother wakes up in her home in western Ukraine, turns on the television and discovers once again that her country is at war.

Panicked and flashing back to childhood memories of World War II bombings, she begins to pack her things to evacuate, her granddaughter said. Her husband has been hiding the house keys for six decades, assuring her that everything will be fine and that their home is the safest place for them.

Before long the war, the fear and the reassurance will disappear in the fog of dementia – like all the new memories of years past. Until the next morning, or the next air raid siren, when the reality of the invasion that has gripped Ukraine for more than 50 days will find it again.

“She is going through the daily trauma of rediscovering that the war has started and continues to try to evacuate,” said Ms Boichak, who lives in Sydney and speaks weekly with her grandparents and her aunt, a health worker who cares for them. video chat. She declined to give her grandparents’ names or their exact location in relatively safe western Ukraine out of concerns for their safety.

“It’s really heartbreaking,” she said.

In nearly two months of war, many Ukrainians, who are young and healthy, have left the country or taken up arms. Many elderly, infirm or handicapped people are left behind, unable to make the journey or unwilling to leave the environment equipped for their needs.

Dementia, in particular, is a “hidden” disability that can prevent patients from receiving humanitarian aid or being protected by health care providers, according to Alzheimer’s Disease International, an umbrella organization for groups around the world. Even before the Russian invasion in February, the war in Ukraine’s eastern separatist regions had disproportionately affected older Ukrainians.

For the grandparents of Mrs. Boichak, who is in his late 80s, made childhood memories of being forced to flee amid Soviet shelling all the more attached to their home, and her grandfather is determined to stay despite the pleas of their children and grandchildren, she said. Her grandfather, a retired doctor, was excited to spend his final years in the house they renovated for decades and where her grandmother, a retired architect, had a garden for many years growing tomatoes, zucchini and carrots, Ms. Boichak.

On Day 41 of the war, Ms Boichak, a sociologist and educator who has researched the role of social media in shaping stories of war and military violence, starting with the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, posted her grandparents’ story on Twitter† She described how her grandmother had fallen into a “perpetual loop.”

To her surprise, her tweet seemed to resonate around the world; more than 44,000 people liked the post.

Among those moved by their story was Liza Vovchenko, who immediately thought of her own grandmother in a Russian-occupied city in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine.

Credit…via Liza Vovchenko

For weeks after the Russian soldiers took control, her 82-year-old grandmother, Rita, continued to try to make her daily walks to the market in the city center, even though the streets were no longer safe. The market was long dead when food became scarce and people ran out of money.

Her grandmother, a retired teacher who has been showing increasing signs of dementia over the past three years, keeps forgetting the war and becomes angry with the grandson she lives with for not letting her out of the house, Ms Vovchenko said.

“Her normal routine was affected and people like her really need routine in their lives,” said Ms Vovchenko, who lives in Paris and speaks on the phone to her grandmother and cousin who lives with her. Without her daily walks and conversations with friends and neighbors she meets along the way, and without her medication, her grandmother’s condition has worsened, she said.

The family has tried to keep her away from television, after which all Ukrainian programming has been replaced by a torrent of Russian propaganda. She’s almost out of Sudoku pages that she likes to do.

Particularly painful for the family was that the kitchen, which, as in many Soviet-era houses, is in a self-contained building, had to be kept locked. Her grandmother, a skilled cook who loves to bake pies with cherries, apples and plums from her garden, has repeatedly tried to prepare elaborate meals, without realizing that the family had to ration the dwindling food supplies.

Last week, the family evacuated her grandmother from the village where she was born in 1940, as fighting intensified on the Eastern Front, Ms Vovchenko said.

Among her friends and contacts all over Ukraine, there are stories of elderly relatives being disabled or frail urging the young to leave them and get themselves to safety, she said.

“For the young who can escape, the elderly would force you to flee,” she said. They say, ‘I will die here because it is my country. I want to make sure you leave and can come back to rebuild this country.”

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