Pensioners in Northern Ireland are collectively spending almost £27m more than the government is giving them, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.
New research shows that an average senior citizen receiving a state pension of £102.50 is going over budget by up to £88.55 (or 87%) every single week.
And with around 300,940 people currently drawing state pensions here, according to Stormont figures, that adds up to a massive shortfall.
It also helps reinforce the sentiments of the Belfast Telegraph’s Feel the Benefit initiative, which is an integral part of Age NI’s Spread the Warmth campaign, and aims to encourage at least 100 pensioners to contact the organisation’s helpline to get a benefits check.
Age NI has calculated that a successful benefits check can boost an older person’s weekly income by £62 — or £3,224 a year.
It is hoped, therefore, that this week’s initiative will unleash payments totalling, on average, £6,200 per person per annum, and £322,400 overall.
Many of our senior citizens are living on the breadline, facing stark choices between heating and eating, as the cost of living continues to rise.
But there could be help at hand — particularly for the elderly with no savings or other income — and people are being encouraged to claim their legitimate financial entitlements.
Age NI chief executive Anne O’Reilly said that almost half of pensioner households in Northern Ireland have a weekly income of less than £300, while more than a fifth have under £200.
She added: “Single female older people are even harder hit, with 79% existing on £300 and 45% with a budget of under £200.”
The recent research, carried out by retirement specialists LV=, also found that the average retired couple in the UK spends £17,922 a year to live — up from around £13,500 in 2000. In real terms that means the cost of living has risen by a third for retired people since the turn of the millennium.
Matt Trott, head of annuities at LV=, said the living costs for senior citizens in Northern Ireland are similar to the rest of the UK.
“Low interest rates and rising inflation has hit pensioners hard, with the cost of living dramatically increasing over the last decade,” Mr Trott said.
It means pensioners are having to spend significantly more than what they’re getting from the state just to make ends meet.
A significant proportion of the rise in spending can be put down to rocketing utility bills.
Indeed, UK pensioners are spending an average of £918 on gas and electricity, compared with £635 12 years ago.
However, that figure will probably be higher in Northern Ireland where 64% of households are dependent on expensive home heating oil.
The biggest dent in older people’s budgets is caused by food and non-alcoholic drinks which, according to LV=, cost £1,411 annually. In 2000 a single person’s pension was £67.50.
It will rise by 2.5% to £110.15 from next April, however, following Chancellor George Osborne’s autumn budget on Wednesday.
Other research this year, by Age UK, said the “Silver inflation” rate, specific to pensioners, has risen by just under 19% in the last four years. This compares with the average UK inflation of 13% over the same period, and equates to a pensioner requiring an extra £1,111.26 just to maintain the same lifestyle.
In 2011, nine pensioners died every hour in the UK due to the cold.
‘I used to spend my days in bed, just to keep warm’
By Claire McNeilly
The home that she shared with her older sister for decades can feel like the wilderness.
That is what Nora, who is in her 70s, sometimes thinks of the place since Kathleen died a year ago.
It’s empty, silent, lonely. And until recently, it was really getting her down.
She lives mostly in one tiny room of a house she can barely afford to heat when the weather turns cold.
Without close relatives, she lives a solitary existence, despite living in a city, and that isolation has impacted on her mental health.
And, before Age NI intervened, she admits that she she had been spending all her days in bed, just to keep warm.
“I was feeling very alone after my sister Kathleen died because I didn't have anyone to talk to anymore,” said Nora.
“I was also trying to cut down on shopping to save money for oil, but it was really difficult to make ends meet.
“One of my neighbours visited me in a very cold spell during the winter when my house was freezing and then put me in touch with Age NI.
“Calling the advice line for a benefits check and getting money that I didn't realise I was entitled to made a huge difference to my life.”
In addition to a financial boost, Nora got her house insulated which has made it more efficient and helps to keep the heat in.
Age NI’s advice line also put her in touch with the First Connect service, which facilitates face-to-face emotional support for clients in their home.
“The First Connect co-ordinator helped me to cope with the loss of my sister, which was a devastating blow,” said Nora, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. “We’d lived together all our lives and her passing was terrible — but the adviser understood how lonely and isolated I was feeling.
“She arranged for me to go to a day centre every week and it’s great to be out socialising again.
“Thanks to Age NI I am part of the community again and I no longer feel so alone.”