Six out of 10 pensioners in Northern Ireland cannot afford to heat their homes adequately, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.
Shocking new figures also show that over half of local senior citizens aged between 60 and 74 are living in fuel-poor homes — meaning that over 10% of household |income is being spent just to keep warm.
The 2011 House Condition Survey, which has just been released, offers its preliminary results on fuel poverty across the province, and they make for grim reading.
With more and more elderly people forced to choose between heating and eating, this newspaper’s Feel the Benefit drive, which is part of Age NI’s Spread the Warmth campaign, aims to encourage at least 100 senior citizens to check what they are entitled to.
Calculations by Age NI suggest that a successful benefits check can boost a pensioner’s weekly income by an average of £62 — or £3,224 a year.
That means £6,200 in weekly unclaimed benefits could be released in just five days; and £322,400 overall.
The results of a survey show that the number of households in fuel poverty has increased by 21% since 2004, while there has been a 13% hike in the total percentage of fuel poor 60-74-year-olds in Northern Ireland.
One in four (42%) of households here were defined as being fuel poor in 2011 — that’s up 18.1% from 23.9% in seven years.
Fuel poverty has been consistently on the rise across the province, but last year’s results show a marginal decrease.
However, the problem remains significantly greater here than elsewhere in the UK, where the average is 18.6%.
Households are considered to be in ‘fuel poverty' if they have to spend more than 10% of their household income on fuel to keep their home in a ‘satisfactory' condition.
It is a measure which compares income with what the fuel costs should be rather than what they actually are. Whether a household is in fuel poverty or not is determined by three key factors: the cost of energy; the energy efficiency of the property (and therefore, the energy required to heat and power the home); and household income.
Age NI strategic policy advisor Bernadette Maginnis (below) said that problems associated with fuel poverty should not be taken |lightly.
“Generically, poverty among older people is sitting at around 23%,” she said.
“In terms of fuel poverty among the elderly, it’s just under 61%.
“For the first time in five years there has been a very marginal decline in fuel poverty and we welcome that.
“But, comparing the figures for the rest of the UK, the problem is much worse in Northern Ireland.”
Mrs Maginnis said that the high dependency of local households (64%) on oil was one of the main reasons for the discrepancy.
She added: “Benefit dependency is higher here and incomes are lower than in the rest of the UK and these are also connected to the high incidence of fuel |poverty.
“Similarly, there is a problem with energy-inefficient homes.”
Older people are dependent on benefits for survival because after they hit 60, they are, by and large, beyond working age.
Age NI is hoping to see an increase in the number of senior citizens who are entitled to benefits but aren’t accessing them, by encouraging them to contact its helpline.
“That way they will be able to afford more fuel to heat their homes |and benefit uptake could help them onto other schemes such as the Warm Home Scheme,” Mrs Maginnis added.
‘Many people out there are socially isolated and don’t often see anyone’
By Eimear Gildernew
A referral can be from a variety of sources — from Age NI’s advice team, social services, occupational therapists or the PSNI.
We deal with vulnerable and isolated people, as well as older people who are going through a very difficult time, like a bereavement.
My visits are prearranged with individual clients. It’s a very person-centred approach; I’ll sit down and have a chat with them.
If someone is socially isolated I’ll ask the person where they want to go and where they don’t want to go.
If someone wants to go dancing I’ll try and find |opportunities in their area. Or it could be something as simple as getting a befriending service involved, to provide a longer term face-to-face service.
Benefits checks are a huge part of my work.
If I’m in an older person’s home where they’re not eating properly or they’re not warm enough, I’ll check they’re getting the money they are entitled to.
Often people will be legitimately entitled to things like pension credit and recently I was able to get a lady an extra £54 a week.
A successful benefits check makes a huge difference; |people can then afford oil, or food.
Many people out there are totally socially isolated and don’t see a single person from week to week.
The last time I visited a 83-year-old gentleman — who doesn’t have a telephone — he hadn’t seen anyone for four weeks.
There are older people living in Belfast without electricity in their houses.
Previously, I visited man in his 80s, with no family.
He was very poor and didn’t go out at all.
He lived in a very isolated, cold, damp old house, with broken windows.
People don’t realise these things happen in this day and age.
You do see some horrendous things: maybe an older person doesn’t have electricity, or they’re living in a cold, damp house.
Maybe there’s no food in the cupboard, or they haven’t been out for weeks.
A lot of them have just fallen off the radar and you ask yourself how someone can be left like that.
Eimear Gildernew is a |co-ordinator with First Connect, Age NI’s support service
Helpline inundated after our grants campaign
By Claire McNeilly
Age NI said it has had to bring in extra staff to man its helpline telephones since the Belfast Telegraph launched Feel the Benefit.
The organisation’s chief executive Anne O’Reilly said scores of older people had been contacting it for help since the start of the week.
“The response we’ve had to the Belfast Telegraph’s Feel the Benefit initiative has been truly outstanding,” she said.
“And we are encouraging older people to continue to call us to see what extra payments they may be entitled to, particularly in this cold weather.
“This week our helpline has been inundated but calls are being diverted to Age UK when our local advisors are busy so everyone should get through.”
In addition to benefit checks, Age NI advisors said they have been referring people to the warm homes scheme and giving rate |relief advice. There has also been a positive response to this newspaper’s Feel the Benefit drive from older people calling Age NI.
A woman in her 80s said: “I don’t want to deprive anyone else if I am not entitled to benefits but when I saw the Belfast |Telegraph it made me pick up the phone and call.”
As a result of contacting the helpline she may qualify for up to £100 a week in additional benefits.
A client in his 90s said: “I |didn’t think I was entitled to any benefits but when I read the Belfast Telegraph I was encouraged to phone.”
Another caller said: “I wanted to do a benefits check for my mum after reading the Belfast |Telegraph article and I called to find out what information is required. Thanks so much for giving me clear, straightforward advice.”
An older person added: “Having my benefits check was like having a health check! I should do it more often — at least each year for my own peace of mind.”