Elderly war survivors: The healing power of belonging

Author: Salome Kobalava


The bullet holes in the walls of the Soviet-era post office in Gori, Georgia are still visible to passing cars. The building’s scars which extend from the post-office to nearby buildings serve as a daily reminder of the Russian occupation of the city and surrounding villages in August 2008.

The repercussions of the war are still reverberating in the lives of those it affected, particularly those who were forced to flee their homes to escape the fighting.

The impact of the war has disproportionately hit the elderly, especially women, many of whom are facing their twilight years alone and in poverty.

Makvala Chighladze, 68, was one of the many forced to flee the city ten years ago when it came under Russian attack. Chighladze and her family narrowly escaped the Russian troops when they fled to Tbilisi.

That was the second time she had been driven out of her home.

The first time was in 1991 when a military conflict broke out between Georgia and the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Her father-in-law perished when her family’s house in Znauri district was burned to the ground during the fighting.

Memories from that 1991 exodus still haunt Makvala. She explained that her health deteriorated following the 2008 war, and she became a recluse. “I never left my room and I brooded over my health.”

But today, with the help of the Gori day center for the elderly, Makvala reports that she is slowly reclaiming her life.

“Coming here helped. It got me back to normal. When the clock strikes 12, I rush here because I have a goal now, like I did back home in Froni valley [in South Ossetia] when I went to work every day.”

Women play cards at the Gori day center. They meet every day to chat, play board games, read newspapers, watch TV, and enjoy some tea and sweets. Left to right: Zhuzhuna Nikorashvili, 84 displaced from South Ossetia in 1991; Luda Martiashvili, 68, 2008 war survivor from Gori; Makvala Chighladze, 68, displaced from South Ossetia in 1991; Eliza Razmadze, 81, displaced from South Ossetia in 1991.
Left to right: Makvala Chighladze, 68, displaced from South Ossetia in 1991; Eliza Razmadze, 81, displaced from South Ossetia in 1991.
Ana Meskhi, 81, displaced from South Ossetia in 1991. She has been the day center beneficiary since 2016. She is a tailor and has worked as one until retirement. Her hobby is knitting. All her knitwork was burned and destroyed during August 2008 war.
Left to right: Izolda Doliashvili,67, and Zaira Kaulashvili, 67, reading magazines. Both women were displaced from South Ossetia in 1991.
Zaira Kaulashvili, 67, displaced from South Ossetia in 1991. Zaira has been the day center beneficiary since 2016. She has graduated from the medical college and worked as the laboratory clerk in the aviation factory before leaving Tskhinvali behind. Her hobbies are cooking and sewing.
Gulnara Kekoshvili, 80, was displaced from Tskhinvali in 1991. She used to work as a director of shopping center back in Tskhinvali. Gulnara is handy: she can repair electricity or almost anything that needs mending in her apartment. She also has a green thumb and loves to garden.

The Gori day center is the only senior citizen facility of its kind in Shida Kartli.

It is located just a stone's throw away from Makvala’s room in the decrepit building allocated for those who were forced to leave their homes in South Ossetia.  

Unless her daughters and grandchildren visit or she feels too weak to make the trip, she goes the center every weekday. A former medical worker, her favorite hobby at the center is reading medical journals to learn how to care for her heart condition.

A spacious room made out of a shipping container stands adjacent to the center’s main building. The room, which is filled with a large TV, long tables and comfortable furniture, hosts a few dozen senior citizens every week day. They spend the hours reading and chatting over tea. Most of the 50 people who use the center’s services are displaced from South Ossetia (also referred to as internally displaced people or IDPs) and are survivors of the 2008 war. All but three are women.

Statistically, women over the age of 60 constitute a majority of Georgia’s IDP population: 27,683 (61%) out of 45,345, according to the Georgian Social Service Agency.

Georgia’s senior citizens, even those who have not been displaced, are among the country’s least socially protected groups and their lives are defined by a lack of social services, inadequate housing, and poverty, according to the Public Defender of Georgia.

As a result, the elderly are at a greater risk for social isolation, especially women, according to a 2017 joint study by UNFPA and Georgia’s official statistics agency. The effect of social isolation is even more severe for displaced seniors who have suffered trauma, loss and have been forced to leave their homes.

But despite the outsized impact on displaced senior citizens, “not a single state program has been created to help these people, even though everyone who experienced war needs psycho-social rehabilitation,” Iuliana Petrova, the social worker at the day center, explains. She has observed that the seniors she works with are so fixated on the past that it is obvious “they have not recovered” from the trauma they experienced.

Dali Qoniashvili, 76, 2008 war survivor from Gori.Dali is an economist by profession. She worked as a chief accountant at Gori military base. At the time of Gori occupation in 2008, she was still at work, fulfilling her role and doing her routine job.
The building of the former sports hall in Gori has been used to house displaced families from South Ossetia while they had been waiting for government housing.
The building of the former sports hall in Gori had been used to house displaced families from South Ossetia. The building is the property of a private investor now.
The façade of an old wooden building where displaced families lived until 2017 is visible through the mosaic.
Makvala Chighladze, 68, displaced from South Ossetia in 1991, stands in front of the Gori day center. The center is a safe and welcoming place for people over the age of 60 to gather and socialize five days a week.
Left to right - Ana Meskhi, 81; Zhuzhuna Nikorashvili, 84; Makvala Chighladze, 68. All three women were displaced from South Ossetia in 1991.

The need to open the facility became clear to the day center’s administrator, Ia Zubashvili, when she saw depressed senior citizens in her settlement. “They wouldn’t leave their room, they just stared at their old photos and mourned their dead,” Zubashvili, who is also displaced from Tskhinvali, recalls.

This kind of isolation, combined with trauma, can affect mental health and lead to early death, especially for people who have a greater need for social interaction.

“When a previously sociable person is suddenly forced to live with just memories [of his or her previous life] and, at the same time, focuses on negative past experiences, a number of diseases develop, including dementia, stroke, and high blood pressure,” Konstantine Pozov, the day center psychologist, points out.

He believes that social engagement can help senior citizens overcome trauma and underscores that “A person needs to feel that he or she has a role in the community.”

He stresses that displaced senior citizens, who have already survived so many challenges, are particularly vulnerable and need specialized care from the government as well as  attention from society.

Dali Qoniashvili, 76, a survivor of the 2008 war, stays quiet when heated debates break out at the center.

During the war, a cluster bomb hit her apartment building in Gori. Luckily she survived, but she soon developed anxiety and her health deteriorated to the point that eventually she had to quit her accounting job. Dali then moved in with her nephew because “living alone became unbearable.”

“It is hard for people like me to stay at home and do nothing. I have been active all my life and used to work three jobs at once. This center has reinvigorated my life. If for some reason I skip a few days, when I return, the women ask me where I’ve been and how I am doing. This is important to me and makes me happy.”

Gulnara Kekoshvili, 80, is a former marketeer from Tskhinvali who now lives mostly alone in government housing.

Formally bedridden, the day center has helped her find friends and socialize. Recently she returned to the center, just days after an operation. Arriving straight from the doctor, Gulnara quickly became the center of attention.

“I have fun here. I love people. What is there to do at home? Most of the time, I am alone,” she notes matter-of-factly. “People pay attention to me here; I feel that I matter and that means everything to me.”

October, 2018 The Peace-Builders

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