Age of Happiness NGO working to make older people’s lives happier and healthier

September 8, 2023

A Nordic walking class for older people organized by the Age of Happiness NGO.

Photo: Artem Poznanskyi / UNDP in Ukraine

Age of Happiness, a non-government organization that had to relocated from Donetsk Oblast to Kropyvnytskyi in Kirovohrad Oblast because of the war, was founded to support older people through creating activities for them. The organization's humanitarian hub hosts media education classes, smartphone and computer training, art therapy and sketching, psychological and legal support for community members. 

When war comes, people often have to leave most of their possessions behind and relocate to save their own lives and the lives of loved ones. Meanwhile, the home, village, town or city they leave behind can be reduced to rubble. While all members of a community suffer, older people are in a particularly vulnerable position, feeling confused, disorientated, and fearing for the future. 

Many women and men over 50 come to the humanitarian hub of the Age of Happiness NGO in Kropyvnytskyi in just such a state. To help them, in 2022 the organization received support from the EU4Dialogue programme of the European Union and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as part of the “Civil Society Response to the Needs of Women and Men, Especially Those Living in Hard-to-Reach Places and from Vulnerable Groups” programme. 

Since moving from Slovyansk, the Age of Happiness humanitarian hub has been located in a business centre in Kropyvnytskyi, where its founder and head, 62-year-old Natalia Bondarenko, now has her office. She says she created the organization in 2017 with the aim of breaking stereotypes about older people. 

Natalia Bondarenko, head of the Age of Happiness NGO, in her office in Kropyvnytskyi.

Photo: Artem Poznanskyi / UNDP in Ukraine

“This organization is designed to help senior people find themselves, develop, and realize that there is still life ahead of them,” Bondarenko says of her organization’s mission.

“There is a lot that they can do. They can fulfil their dreams, find friends, exercise or do lots of other things. Our community helps older people to be visible in society.”

Until 2017, she ran her own small agency for regional tourism in eastern Ukraine. 

“In 2014, when the war broke out, I could no longer work,” Bondarenko says. “Doing the tourism business in eastern Ukraine became difficult. So I submitted my CV for jobs wherever I could. At that time, various international organizations, including NGO “People in Need”, were coming to Slovyansk. I was hired by them and worked as a specialist in the economic support department. But over time, I realized that it was hard for me to work in the office all the time. I also wanted to change society’s attitude to older people. So I set up an NGO and got on with it!” 

Today, the NGO, with the support of the EU4Dialogue project of the European Union and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), runs a humanitarian hub offering classes in media education, smartphone and computer skills, art therapy and sketching, psychological and legal support, Nordic walking, Pilates, and more. 

“I created this non-governmental organization for anyone who has turned 50,” Bondarenko says. 

A Nordic walking class for older people. Photo: Artem Poznanskyi / UNDP in Ukraine

“By this time, a person has usually already given birth to children, raised them, planted a garden, built a house, and is free to devote time to themselves. At this point, it’s not necessary to be exclusively engaged in education, you can pay attention to your health. You can engage in creative activities or hobbies. We hold theatre performances, sketching, and drawing classes. A person can choose what is interesting and what inspires them – things they really want to do.” 

After the start of the full-scale invasion, Bondarenko came to Kropyvnytskyi at the invitation of friends in the civil society sector. Initially, she held events at the local Honcharenko Centre, then later she was able to fully relocate her organization from Slovyansk to Kropyvnytskyi, which is about 400 kilometres to the west. 

“It seemed to me that I would return home faster from here.” Natalia Bondarenko, the 62-year-old founder of the Age of Happiness NGO, on moving to Kropyvnytskyi

“There are partners in Kropyvnytskyi with whom we have been cooperating in the public sector for five years,” Bondarenko says. There are people here who will help. And it's not far from Slovyansk. I thought that I’d be able to return home faster from here.”  

One of those Bondarenko’s organization helps is Lilia Yurpolska, who is in her 70s and who has lived in Kropyvnytskyi all her life. She says her health and social life have improved since she started to visit the Age of Happiness humanitarian hub. 

“I attend Nordic walking and Pilates,” Yurpolska says. “I lost weight immediately, and my legs stopped hurting. I felt more healthy. I surprised myself by buying a smartphone – before that I thought I didn't need one. However, the hub helped me to learn how to use it. I’m very pleased that in such a difficult time I’ve found other people who are really interesting to talk with.” 

Many organizations use the term “elderly people,” but Bondarenko insistently argues that such a term shouldn’t be used. 

“The term ‘elderly people’ upsets me a lot.” Natalia Bondarenko, 62-year-old founder of the Age of Happiness NGO

Usually, society refers to us as elderly people,” Bondarenko says. “To me, this means a person who is already old and doesn't need anything. The term elderly upsets me a lot – we should just be called older people, or people of a respectable age. People of a respectable age are people who have gravitas, experience, wisdom and strength. Sometimes I call us senior citizens.” 

Bondarenko got a terrible shock when she learned that in Soviet times the period from receiving a pension certificate until death was termed “the end of living” period. 

“Up to this point, I’ve lived my life and enjoyed it, but from now on I just have to wait for the end?” Bondarenko says. “Why do I have to wait for the end? I want to live! It’s a matter of principle for me!” 

A meeting in the humanitarian hub.

Photo: Artem Poznanskyi / UNDP in Ukraine

All of the humanitarian hub’s events and classes are open to both local residents and internally displaced persons who have sought refuge in Kropyvnytskyi. One of the participants who recently joined the community is Tetiana Kyrylova. She used to live in Mariinka, a town that has since been completely destroyed by the Russian army. 

“At first I didn't want to leave, but my house has been turned into a pile of rubble.” Kyrylova says.  

“I moved to a place not far away from my hometown and spent six months in a rented apartment,” she says, recalling those terrible times with tears in her eyes. “My daughter is studying in Kropyvnytskyi, and I wanted to find some activities there. By chance, I saw Natalia (Bondarenko)'s group on a Telegram channel. I found out that we were from the same region. I’m very pleased that I joined the classes, I really need them now.” 

Natalia Vasylenko is 58 years old, and has lived in Kropyvnytskyi almost all of her life. After working as an economist in the civil service for more than 30 years, she was laid off last year. Vasylenko now devotes her free time to various activities at the Age of Happiness NGO. The classes at the humanitarian hub keep her spirits up, and distract her from the constant air raid alarms and everyday worries, she says. 

“I feel free, I feel more alive.” Natalia Vasylenko, 58, about classes at the Age of Happiness NGO

“You never know what kind of air raid alarm it will be – whether it will just pass, or whether it will be the last alarm of your life,” Vasylenko says. “But then I remember that I have to run to a class at 4 o'clock! I started Pilates, and I've been doing it for a month now without missing a single class. I have also taken Nordic walking, psychology, and I’ve rediscovered my smartphone and computer. I feel free, I feel more alive!” 

Liubov Serhieieva, IDP and a participant of the activities conducted at the humanitarian hub. Photo: Artem Poznanskyi / UNDP in Ukraine

Liubov Serhieieva, who has been living in Kropyvnytskyi since 2014, when her native Kadiyivka in Luhansk Oblast was occupied by Russian troops, says the classes challenge her to improve herself. 

“For me, it's a way out of my comfort zone.” Liubov Serhieieva, IDP from Kadiivka, Luhansk Oblast, about classes at the Age of Happiness NGO 

“At first, I came across a Nordic walking class in the park by accident,” Serhieieva says. “I was very interested and wanted to join in. For me, it was a way out of my comfort zone. All the coaches try to convey to us that we can do anything, we just have to take the first step.” 

Morning exercises organized by the Age of Happiness NGO.

Photo: Artem Poznanskyi / UNDP in Ukraine

Bondarenko says her organization holds joint activities for local and displaced seniors, with the aim of helping both groups adapt and overcome personal trauma. 

“I realize that the war is a terrible trauma for people,” Bondarenko says. “They’ve lived somewhere their whole lives, they’ve built a house or furnished an apartment – and now they have to leave it all behind. They have to leave their family and friends. The process of adapting to a new community in a new place is difficult. 

“At the same time, the locals are also traumatized – they hear terrible news every day, someone's son or son-in-law is at war, someone has lost a loved one.  

“But when locals and IDPs of the same age spend time together, they get along better. They come to joint events, and afterwards they call each other and go to cafes. They get to communicate, keep their spirits up, and gain the strength to keep going.” 

For Bondarenko, it was very important for the project to involve both IDPs and locals.  

“When we talk exclusively about IDPs in any project, we immediately divide people, whereas we need to unite them,” Bondarenko says. “I'm an IDP too – I even have a certificate.”  

“When there are older people involved, we can't say something like, ‘You’re an IDP and here’s something for you to do, and you aren’t an IDP and you’re not going to get anything to do.”

“True support is when they do Scandinavian walking together, they paint together, and when they spend time together.” 

The NGO “Age of Happiness” is one of the organizations that received support within the programme “Response of civil society to the needs of women and men, especially those living in hard-to-reach places and representatives of vulnerable groups” supported by the European Union (EU) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) under the EU-funded EU4Dialogue regional programme to address the most urgent needs of war-affected communities in Ukraine.   

Author: Marharyta Lubkova 

Photo: Artem Poznanskyi / UNDP Ukraine  

Note: This article was produced with the European Union’s and UNDP’s financial assistance under the EU4Dialogue programme. The contents do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the European Union or UNDP.