Belfast Telegraph

Elderly are still facing a chilling future

Nearly 800 older people died from the cold last year. Just turned 60, Malachi O'Doherty accuses the politicians of betraying our OAPs

I am 60 years old. It feels almost like a joke to me that I can have a smart pass to travel free on the buses and trains when I use public transport so little.

When I mention this to others in my own age-group, they invariably laugh.

Many feel hugely empowered by the wee card. I wasn't going to apply for mine and then I feared I might add to the numbers not taking up their benefits.

It's important that older people be urged to take everything they are entitled to, because many don't.

Pensioner campaigners, like Age Sector Platform, say that there are diverse reasons for this and not needing what's available is the least of them.

Many do not apply for pension credits that would increase their income to a derisory £137.75. That's hardly because they are comfortable getting by on less.

Age Sector Platform campaigns on the argument that older people should not be forced to choose between heating and eating and it sounds almost too shocking to be true that they do.

Yet the Citizens Advice Bureau said last week that about a third of the older people accessing their services have that precise problem.

With another shivery winter forecast, we can expect to hear tediously familiar stories about older people going hungry and another winter cliche; those with broken bones from falls queuing on hospital trollies.

There's bound to be one or two reports of old people being found dead in their homes after neighbours, wondering that they hadn't seen them about, have forced a door.

And we'll get announcements from the Executive that cold weather special payments have been triggered to enable pensioners to buy a little extra heating oil.

Last year, nearly 800 people over 65 died of cold-related illness in Northern Ireland. Yet the winter fuel allowance is being cut.

You have to wonder why provision for the old is so miserly and so diverse.

The problem for them is simple: they don't have enough money. But governments can impress us with their concern by giving them sweeties, travel passes and TV licences instead of addressing the core problem of their poverty.

The answer is as simple as the problem: give them more money.

And we have had assurances from the Government that radical pension reform is coming. We have been promised a more straightforward system that guarantees a basic minimum to everyone without requiring them to fill out convoluted forms or feel like beggars.

But you have to wonder how pensioners came to be treated so badly and to doubt that the money will ever be enough for them to live in comfort and dignity.

The trouble with the pensioners is perhaps that they are docile. It would be a rash campaigner for justice who would ask them to chain themselves to the railings for Stormont, or sit down in the middle of the road. The Government does not have to worry about them protesting, because they don't have the energy, or the inclination.

So, we have routine discussion on the airwaves about student debt as if it was the greatest injustice inflicted on a struggling population, while there is virtually no notice taken of the fact that the old are hungry and cold.

Another part of the problem is that younger people seem not to regard the penury of pensioners as their problem.

While private pensions are undermined by the collapsing markets on which they depend for buoyancy, working men and women do not feel that they are losing tens of thousands of pounds. Yet the effect on them is little different than if the same sums were piled onto their credit-card bills.

The growth in the state pension has been so slow as to constitute embezzlement by the Government of people who anticipated fair treatment, but didn't get it.

Where is the justice in squeezing older people? They can't be expected to get on their bikes and find jobs.

The only justice for them would be that their security and comfort would be ring-fenced within the economy, yet we have the obscenity of successive chancellors contriving means of shaving more off their allowances and devising added complications to how they can access provision.

George Osborne has just decided to link pension increases to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rather than the Retail Price Index (RPI), which climbs faster; another scam for robbing the old.

There should be no need for a winter fuel allowance at all, because no just society should leave older people so ill-provided for that they need one.

In the coming days, we will see the party conferences for Labour and the Conservatives. Already, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband has pitched for a reduction in student fees.

It is clear what he is up to. He is making an appeal to 'middle England' - the middle-class families that most cash-strapped students come from. He is after their votes.

He doesn't feel the same urgency to promise pensioners that he will arrange for them to live out their lives with the heating on and a decent dinner inside them.

Because pensioners aren't making enough of a fuss. They are dying off quietly and coldly and are easily ignored.

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