A third of elderly 'must choose between eating and heating'
The shocking level of fuel poverty - particularly among Northern Ireland's most vulnerable - has been laid bare in a new report.
A recent study by the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) has found that 50% of clients can barely afford to pay their bills, with 77% cutting back on heat.
Just under a third (30%) of elderly people said they had to chose between eating and heating - a figure that rises to an alarming 59% among disabled respondents.
This disturbing situation follows an official review into fuel poverty in Northern Ireland, which found 44% of homes are already fuel-poor.
The government-commissioned review also revealed that a worrying 13% of households are living in extreme fuel poverty.
Derek Alcorn, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said CAB's new survey underlines the growing plight of many householders.
"With fuel poverty fast approaching 50% of households as energy companies announce further price increases, the problem is becoming acute," he said.
"Particularly concerning are the problems that disabled people face when trying to heat their homes.
"Many people with disabilities, such as those with cancer or muscular diseases, have a much greater need for heat but also frequently have lower incomes if they rely on benefits."
The findings also showed that one in 10 CAB clients have had to borrow from relatives, friends or charities at some point to pay for heating bills.
Fuel poverty is defined as occurring when 10% of a household's income is insufficient to afford their energy needs. Where extreme fuel poverty is concerned - which affects around 75,000 homes in Northern Ireland - that figure rises to 25%.
In recent times, people have been finding it more and more difficult to heat their homes as the cost of living continues to soar.
This will be exacerbated by the price hikes already announced this year, including the Phoenix Gas increase of 39.1%, the 28.4% Firmus hike and a 18.6% rise by Power NI.
Indeed, customers were dealt a further blow when it emerged that another 12.5% could be added to the cost of electricity as a result of a potential grid update.
That would push electricity up to 17p a unit and result in annual average household bills of £650, which is double its 2005 level.
Oil prices remain high and the cost of coal is predicted to increase by between 4% and 10% bringing families even bleaker news.
The bad news comes in the wake of the UK Government's decision to reduce winter fuel payments this year - despite forecasters predicting colder weather than ever before at Christmas.
Professor Christine Liddell, who led the recent fuel poverty review, said another bitter winter will only make matters worse. "Already, there are 220,000 fuel poor homes here, but who knows what that figure could rise to," she said.
"There is a real possibility that more than half of the households in Northern Ireland will be over the 10% threshold at the next count in a couple of years."