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For older Ukrainians in front-line cities, visits from social workers bring comfort

SLOVIANSK, Ukraine — On the fourth floor of an apartment building, Larisa lives alone. The 76-year-old uses a walker to move around, and she can't go up or down stairs. She hasn't ventured outside since before Russia invaded Ukraine.

Only three people remain in her building, a reflection of how this front-line city in the east has fared. The hallways in the building are still littered with broken glass, the windows shattered from a recent missile strike that hit the building across the street.

It's a lonely existence for Larisa, whose brother and sister both live elsewhere in Ukraine. But she says it would be even harder if Svitlana Domoratska, a city social worker, didn't visit multiple times a week.

"I rely on her,'" says Larisa, who asked NPR not to use her last name since she lives close to the fighting. "I try to do a lot of things myself, but it's very hard."

Many of those living along the front lines of the war in Ukraine are older people. Because of their advanced age or poor health, they stay behind — and struggle with difficult access to food, water, heat and medicine.

They're also living with nightly shelling and missile attacks. About 15 miles from the front line, Sloviansk has been experiencing these attacks for more than six months. Just 20% of its more than 100,000 prewar residents are still here, according to the mayor. Many of them are over 60.

It's Domoratska's job, as one of 10 social workers who remain in Sloviansk, to visit older residents multiple times a week and make sure they're doing OK. Before the war, there were 40 social workers in the city.

"The people I visit, they don't want to leave," she says. "They're all alone, but they're also in their familiar environment. This is what they know. And in some cases, this is all they have."

At Larisa's apartment, Domoratska, 43, helps with cooking and cleaning. She brings food and medicine and keeps Larisa company. Together, they often watch a travel show on TV — "a distraction," says Larisa, from the nearly constant air raid sirens and explosions.

Even as the sirens wail, Larisa's biggest worry is not the war. It's winter. The city's natural gas supply has been disrupted by shelling, and it won't be restored in time for the heating season. Because of that, there's an evacuation order for Slovyansk.

Larisa's apartment does have electricity, and she points to an electric heater that's already turned on, even though it's only September.

"When it gets colder, I'll wear all my sweaters," she says. "I'll wear my fur coat."

Domoratska says she's worried about winter, too. Even in the spring and summer, seniors who lived alone in Sloviansk were dying in their apartments. They didn't have food — and in some cases, the city or their families didn't know.

The city intensified evacuation assistance, according to Svitlana Viunychenko, the mayor's assistant. But with so many unable or unwilling to leave, she says, they turned to social workers to check in.

When the war first started, Domoratska stayed home with her husband, young child and pets. She has elderly parents herself, so she didn't want to leave Sloviansk. But over time, she realized she had to get back to work: there were people who needed her.

Her husband, who is out of work because of the war, often drives her to her visits, so she doesn't have to walk. Most days, she visits four to six people, and she works six days a week. She has a dozen clients in total.

This week, a missile hit a building where two of her clients — a married couple in their 90s — live. When she arrived to visit them, she found their apartment filled with soil, tree roots and pieces of glass. She helped clean it up. "It was a miracle that they survived," she says.

A few blocks from Larisa's apartment, Domoratska climbs the stairs to visit another woman. There are several loud booms — nearby explosions.

"It's normal now," she says. "Even if there are sirens, even if there are explosions, I still visit. They expect me. They prepare for me to come."

She pounds on a door two floors up.

"It's Svitlana," she yells through the door.

A few minutes later, a woman with a cane opens the door. She's dressed in layers and a thick sheepskin and wool vest.

Anna, 86, has impaired hearing and is partially blind. Like Larisa, she is afraid of using her surname during the war and asked NPR to use her first name.

Domoratska has brought her a loaf of bread, and the timing is perfect: Anna only has two slices left.

"I call her 'Firefly,'" Anna says, sitting on her bed. "She brings light in a dark time." Tacked to the walls behind her, there are pictures of the Virgin Mary with Jesus. Flies swarm around food remnants on a side table.

"I was born in Sloviansk," Anna says. "In the past, life was much better. I was a teacher."

She takes out photos of her students. Before the war, they used to visit. But lately, she says, it's been really lonely. "Loneliness is the worst thing that a person can ever experience," she says. Her niece, who is in her 60s, calls to check in when there are air raid sirens, and visits when she can. Anna's other family members have either moved away or died.

Living alone in wartime has taken its toll.

"I am afraid. I don't sleep at night," she says, sobbing. "If I do fall asleep, I don't know if I'll ever wake up."

As she speaks, there are multiple explosions. The windows, covered by lace curtains, rattle after each boom. She sighs deeply and kisses the cross necklace she wears and wipes her eyes.

She says a prayer — she asks for safety from the explosions.

"Every Babushka would all do the same," she says, using the Ukrainian word for grandmother. "We all just want peace."

Hanna Palamorenko contributed to this report. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.