Irina Krivulya, 67, is alone. She has no children and no family left in her mid-sized Ukrainian town of Khmelnytskyi. Her sister died a year ago, her brother is also gone. Until recently, one of her main social circles was the local Jewish community – eight elderly Jewish women who used to gather in her one-room apartment every few weeks to drink tea and socialize.
Krivulya’s modest social life was sponsored by a program called Warm Home, which is supported by the local chapter of Hesed, a Jewish welfare center. But now, because of the COVID-19 isolation guidelines, no one is coming to visit.
“We haven’t gotten together because of the situation; everyone is trying to be careful,” Krivulya said. “The last time we saw each other was about three months ago.”
Krivulya’s only link to the outside world is her old cell phone, which barely works. All it can do is make calls, said Krivulya, who has never used a computer in her life.
But that is about to change, because she and hopefully dozens of other elderly are set to receive a free tablet computer with internet service, courtesy of Ukraine’s Jewish community.
The tablets are coming thanks to an initiative launched by the Leadership Alumni Programs (LAP), a group of young adults who attended programs run by the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in the former Soviet Union. LAP is now trying to raise $12,000 to purchase 40 tablets for isolated Jewish seniors in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Georgia.
“In March, when the quarantine started, we all switched to online communication. All the young people were chatting online, Zoom became popular. So we started thinking about how we can help the elderly during the pandemic in the former Soviet Union,” said Alexei Lidovsky, a JDC employee who is spearheading the project in Ukraine.
“Before the pandemic, our elderly clients had volunteers and relatives visiting them, but now [no one can visit]… Most of the seniors in the former Soviet Union can’t afford to buy laptops or smartphones,” he said.
So Lidovsky, who is also a PR specialist and a TV journalist in Krivoy Rog, Ukraine, created a crowdfunding campaign on charidy.com, which he named Say YES to communication!
While fundraising during the pandemic has been especially challenging since many people have lost their jobs, so far $800 has been raised — enough to buy four tablets. Two of the devices will go to seniors in Ukraine, and two to seniors in Russia.
“I figured, why do we have to wait until we have $12,000? We can take the first steps right away,” Lidovsky said.
Lidovsky said the stories of the seniors who receive the first four tablets will help fuel enthusiasm for the initiative. For example, one of the elderly women in Ukraine who will receive the gift has recently lost her eyesight. Her tablet will come with special apps for the blind, Lindovsky said.
Jewish community volunteers will install programs such as Skype, Zoom and messenger on the tablets, cover the cost of internet access for one year, and will explain to seniors how to use the devices, he said. They are also planning to set up a hotline seniors can call if they’re having technical trouble with their tablet, and online meetings for the elderly, such as a Jewish culinary class, may also be in the works, Lindovsky said.
And he believes the devices will be useful even after the pandemic.
“Even if COVID-19 disappears, elderly people who are low-income, ill and lonely will still have problems with communication and transportation,” he said. “I think the tablets will be useful even in a year, in two years, or in three years’ time.”
The elderly have been particularly hard hit during the COVID-19 pandemic — and not only because they are most likely to succumb to the disease. In many countries of the former Soviet Union, governments issued strict regulations, essentially forcing the elderly into house arrest.
In Russia, people over the age of 65 are not allowed outside even to take a walk. In Ukraine, those over the age of 60 are only permitted to go to the store or to a pharmacy within 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) of their home, and even then only if no one else can bring them food. And in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, people over the age of 63 are permitted to leave their homes only to go to the store or a pharmacy — and only between the hours of 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Jewish organizations also stepped in to deliver food to isolated elderly Jews during the pandemic. JDC regularly provides food and medicine to more than 80,000 poor, elderly Jews in 11 countries around the former Soviet Union, according to JDC spokesman Michael Geller. Nearly half of the recipients are Holocaust survivors.
During the pandemic, food packages were sometimes delivered by bicycle and private van, because public transportation was shut down in many places, Geller told The Times of Israel in an email.
And the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia delivers daily lunches to 30,000 elderly people confined to their homes, according to spokesman Boruch Gorin.
Still, man cannot live by bread alone.
“These tablets will save them,” said Alla Magas, a JDC employee in Moscow who donated to the project. She said some isolated seniors are too ill to leave their homes — and now no one can even come visit them.
The first four tablet computers are expected to be delivered in the coming weeks.
Krivulya is looking forward to hers, although she admits that learning to use a computer sounds like advanced mathematics to her.
“I was totally shocked,” she said, when asked how she felt when she found out that she would get a free tablet. “I understand that it’s not cheap. I am really glad.”
One of the first things Krivulya will do with the tablet is call her former neighbor Natasha, who now lives in Israel, she said. She and Natasha used to be so close that when Krivulya had surgery for cancer, Natasha stayed overnight in the hospital with her. The last time they spoke was on New Year’s eve.
“We were like sisters, but I can’t communicate with her very often because it’s expensive for me to call her,” Krivulya said. With voice-over-internet and video calling services such as WhatsApp and Zoom, calls will now be free.
Then, Krivulya said, she will rewatch some old movies — any time she wants to. Television programming is often focused on the pandemic, she said, with constant updates on the number of sick and dead, and she looks forward to some lighter viewing.
“Sometimes I really just want to watch some old movies,” she said. “But on TV, movies are only on late at night.”