The amount of unclaimed benefits for older people in Northern Ireland has rocketed by 500% in the last year, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
That staggering figure is one of the reasons why this newspaper has joined forces with Age NI to urge our senior citizens to come forward and claim the benefits they are entitled to.
Our Feel the Benefit initiative — which is an integral part of Age NI’s Spread the Warmth campaign — aims to encourage at least 100 pensioners to contact the organisation’s helpline over the next five days.
This, in turn, will potentially unleash payments totalling, on average, £6,200 per annum per person and £322,400 overall.
Age NI has calculated that a successful benefits check can boost an older person’s weekly income by £62 — or £3,224 a year.
Many of our elderly are living on the breadline and finding it increasingly difficult to adequately heat their homes and feed themselves.
Others face the stark choice between heating and eating, having discovered that it’s impossible to have both, given their circumstances. But in so many cases it doesn’t have to be this way. Claiming the benefits one is entitled to is a positive first step yet, from the figures we have unearthed, that simply isn’t happening enough.
For instance, in September, Age NI helped to identify over £160,000 in unclaimed benefits — compared with £30,000 at the same time last year.
The organisation’s chief executive, Anne O’Reilly, said the figures indicated a number of issues relevant to how our senior citizens are living their lives today.
“Firstly, older people are very concerned about how proposed changes in welfare reform will affect them,” she said.
“Secondly, there are many, many older people in Northern Ireland who are not accessing the benefits they are entitled to.
“As was reported in the Belfast Telegraph yesterday, up to £2.3m is going unclaimed across the province every week in pension credit alone — that’s a truly staggering figure.”
She added: “We believe the help we provide will not only improve the lives of older people and support a reduction in poverty, but it will have an additional benefit to the local economy.
“Imagine, for instance, the positive impact the £160,000 identified in unclaimed benefits in September could have on local shops and businesses across Northern Ireland, particularly in the current economic climate.
“That’s why it’s so important for people to know what they’re entitled to — and to claim it.”
With Christmas — and, more crucially, the onset of winter on its way — now is the time to take action. It isn’t over-dramatising things to say that some older people will actually die simply because they didn’t have enough food or warmth in their lives at this critical time.
Last year, 24,000 people in the UK died as a result of cold-related illnesses.
Elderly people are, of course, more vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather and nine in 10 victims is from that age bracket.
Indeed, over a third of people in the UK aged 60 or over say they are dreading the onset of winter.
There are some 350,000 elderly people in Northern Ireland.