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Ukraine: Elderly Suffer Under Weak Economy

At the recent UN forum on population aging, the only report on communist countries of Europe and the Soviet Union was prepared by a pair of Ukrainian scientists. Their portrait of Ukraine's large elderly population -- impoverished, in poor health, increasingly marginalized -- reflects similar problems in other former communist countries. UN Correspondent Robert McMahon spoke with one of the report's author's, Vladislav Bezrukov, about the problem.

United Nations, 14 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Nearly 20 percent of Ukraine's population -- or about 10 million people -- is over 60 years of age. A new report says their living standards have gradually worsened since the fall of communism nearly 10 years ago.

Pensions have fallen, the report says, and the government has failed to carry out the far-reaching economic reforms that would eventually improve the situation of Ukraine's elderly. At the same time, the report says, Ukrainian society has developed a dim view of the elderly, failing to provide them with the opportunities to participate in community life.

The report's authors are Vladislav Bezrukov and Natalia Foight of the Institute of Gerontology at Ukraine's Academy of Medical Science. Bezrukov, who delivered the report at a UN conference last week, told our correspondent that more than one-third of Ukraine's elderly population lives at a subsistence level.

Fifteen years ago, Bezrukov said, old age pensions were equal to about 40 percent of the average wage of workers. Ten years later, pensions had fallen to about 15 percent of the average wage. Bezrukov said the problem cannot be properly addressed until Ukraine carries out widespread economic reforms, such as in neighboring Poland.

"The best solution is improving the economic situation in the country in general. Not specifically for the elderly but for the general population first. And after the recovery of the economy we can provide any solutions for the problems of the elderly. We can't postpone all our measures for the future. We have to undertake something now. For example, the pension level should be enough not only for surviving but for a decent life."

Drawing the attention of government and society to this large, neglected segment of the population has been difficult. Bezrukov says Ukraine has nothing like the rich and influential organization in the United States called the American Association of Retired Persons. But he said it is trying to establish a voluntary movement that would represent the elderly, among other constituencies.

The report issued by Bezrukov and Foight says the mass media should play a role in improving societal attitudes to the aged and in educating children to treat the elderly with respect.

"I'm talking about TV, about newspapers, not only attracting attention to their problems but showing that the elderly people are capable of doing much much more than they are allowed to do. And it's in the interest of the society as a whole, not only in the interests of the elderly themselves."

The report mentions that under conditions of the planned communist economy, financial resources were provided to maintain the health care system for the elderly, including spa and resort institutions, as well specialized boarding homes for the aged. But were conditions for the aged really that good under communism?

"No, but they were more safe in the sense that they were provided with services, with housing and with other facilities and services. They were sure that they would have enough money for their lives after retirement. They would have enough money for burial. Nowadays they don't have enough money to be buried so it's a problem. Savings are lost."

Bezrukov also said that in previous generations there was a tradition of the rich donating to hospitals, to the elderly, to low-income people. He says this tradition of philanthropy has been lost, although Ukraine does have a number of very rich citizens. But he repeated that overall, the problems of the elderly cannot be solved until the economy is restructured and society is reformed.