Over 500 elderly people in Northern Ireland died last year because of winter cold, a campaigner claimed today.
Plummeting temperatures left increasing numbers of the most vulnerable facing an early grave, Bill Carson from Age Sector Platform added.
He warned older people were seeing their incomes shrink and falling deeper into debt, with 545 extra dying because they couldn't stay warm.
"That is appalling in a modern society. That represents a 60% increase in winter deaths over the last five years," he said.
"It is a steadily worsening situation rather than an improving situation."
He was giving evidence before Stormont's social development committee.
Northern Ireland faces some of the highest heating costs in the UK, Mr Carson added.
"The result of all of this has been to some extent that older people are going into debt," he said.
"These are people who have for years bought only what they needed. This isn't rash, reckless payments, these are people going into debt to exist."
He said isolated pensioners were window shopping in retail centres to escape the cold and seek some company.
"With many people being made redundant the families will not be able to support older relatives," he added.
He said this was a good opportunity for unemployed construction workers to be given work on the Warm Homes Scheme, which improves home energy use efficiency.
The price of fuel and electricity has risen considerably during the last year, although tariffs have begun to fall.
Mr Carson urged renewed consideration of a social tariff for those at risk.
He added: "Older people tend to have more fixed incomes, therefore any increase is a bigger increase from a smaller pot.
"People's incomes are no longer sufficient to allow them to heat or eat adequately."
Earlier this month the Assembly fast-tracked a bill designed to allow low-income households to receive £150 to assist with fuel payments as soon as possible.
The Financial Assistance Bill also proposed to give ministers more flexibility in spending money in exceptional circumstances.
If you are aged 60 to 79 you are entitled to a winter fuel payment worth £125 or £250.
If you are aged 80 or over you are eligible for a payment worth £200 or £400.
DUP committee chairman David Simpson said the older people's advocates had a sympathetic ear, while stressing the need to fairly balance different priorities.
"Five-hundred-odd deaths is a horrific figure," he added.