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Life is becoming unaffordable for pensioners on low and modest incomes, warns Age UK

By: Age UK
Published on 26 May 2022 12:01 AM

“Sometimes dinner is just biscuits” – pensioner couple

Life is fast becoming unaffordable for many older households on low and modest incomes, with millions unable to pay for basic items, according to a new report published today by Age UK.

In its new report, It Doesn’t Add Up, the Charity is warning that those on the very lowest incomes are spending almost a fifth (18 per cent) of their after-tax household income on energy bills because of April’s price cap rise, with one in three older households (29 per cent) in England ‘fuel-stressed’[i]– spending more than 10 per cent of their post-tax income on energy bills to maintain an adequate standard of warmth.

With inflation at a 40-year high – and warnings of worse to come – Age UK is estimating[ii] that two million older households[iii] won’t have enough money to cover their essential spending over the next year. [iv]

Higher prices have resulted in older households on the lowest incomes unable to cover essential day-to-day costs, with an increasing number turning to Age UK’s national advice line for support. From January to March this year, Age UK's Advice Line saw an eight per cent rise in calls compared with the same time last year, a significant increase on the already high numbers of calls taken during the Covid-19 lockdown in early 2021.

Calling on the Government to get a grip on this growing crisis, the Charity is urging Ministers to bring forward a package of measures to support those who lack the income and resources to cope with rising inflation. Measures should include:

  • Raising the level of benefits and the State Pension during this financial year so they keep pace with inflation.
  • Targeting a direct one-off payment of £500 to those on the lowest incomes to help mitigate the impact of energy price rises.
  • Introducing improved social tariffs into the energy market.
  • Doing more to ensure everyone eligible for benefits such as Pension Credit receives their entitlement.

Even before Ofgem’s warning this week that the energy price cap is likely to surge to £2,800 in October – an increase of around £800 a year on the average bill – many older people were looking ahead with trepidation and increasingly using desperate coping strategies to cover their essential costs. Many older people are now only leaving home for health appointments and have cut back on seeing grandchildren, family and friends, to save on fuel and travel costs – leaving them feeling lonely and isolated. Some are going to extreme lengths such as eating just one meal a day or showering just once a fortnight in a bid to keep costs down, whilst others are going without dental treatment, cutting their own hair, borrowing money to buy heating oil, and staying in bed all day to stay warm.

The report outlines how people with disabilities and those caring for them face higher costs to keep safe and well. Even as the weather gets warmer, they still need to use significant amounts of energy for things like doing a lot of laundry, keeping their home very warm or using specialist medical equipment.

In a recent snapshot survey by the Charity,[v] over 36,000 older campaigners said they were worried about the cost of living, and a third of those responded in more detail to express their concerns, their fears for the colder months ahead, and the stark reality of not having enough money to cover the basics. Extreme budgeting and having to make daily decisions about what to cut back on are undoubtedly taking their toll on people’s mental health, with many reporting feeling anxious and depressed.

Lynn said: “I am constantly anxious about how I am going to make ends meet. State Pension is not growing in line with inflation… I’m afraid that, as I get older, I’m also getting poorer and I dread reaching my eighties without enough money. I don’t want to be a drain on my children.”

Pauline, a single pensioner, explained: “It is affecting me probably more than many because I am a single pensioner. I have to heat a house, run a car (as I live off a bus route), buy food, heat my home, all done on a single pension, with a little extra from a [personal pension]. There isn't enough money to live. I cut back on heating and make meals that last 2-3 days and hardly use my car. Prices have gone up but in comparison the State Pension hasn't kept up with inflation. The triple lock was taken away.”

Robert, who is completely reliant on the State Pension, said: “I feel anxious and depressed. I only shower once a fortnight and use the oven once a week.  I do not know what else I can do to meet the bills.”

One pensioner couple told Age UK: “My husband and I are both on the basic State Pension. I am disabled and on lower rate PIP and he has Raynaud’s Syndrome which means he must keep warm at all times. We can't afford to get out much, especially now with heavy petrol increases. With the triple lock gone and food also escalating we are just having to eat less and less. Sometimes dinner is just biscuits.”

Another older person commented: “I have turned heat off altogether. Eat just one meal daily. Not complaining as I have learnt in childhood to wear extra layers, cook and eat as my mum taught us in war years. For entertainment I now visit the park and listen to radio. I cope, but how dreadful that we have gone so far back in living standards in modern Britain.”

Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK said: "Talking to older people who rely on their State Pension certainly brings home just how serious the situation is for them. It comes to something when you hear a woman in her seventies describe how she is adopting strategies learned from her own parents’ experience during World War Two, to stay solvent in 2022.

"At Age UK we are detecting a real undercurrent of fear among some of our older population because they hear the talk about price rises accelerating later in the year and they know they’ve no chance of withstanding them, without more external help. If ever there was a time for Ministers to reassure older people that they are intervening to shield them from inflation, it’s now.

“Older people aren’t stupid and they realise that if they are struggling to keep their heads above water as things stand, the chances are they’ll slip under altogether in a few months’ time. This makes it a horrible time for them, as they see their modest expectation of living decently in retirement slipping out of reach, certainly temporarily, possibly forever.

“The Government must act quickly and decisively so pensioners on low and modest incomes can weather this storm.”  

Age UK is urging anyone who is struggling to pay their bills to get in touch urgently for a full benefits check in case they are one of the many who are missing out on vital benefits such as Pension Credit, which opens the door to a wide range of other financial support.[vi] People can call Age UK’s Advice Line on freephone 0800 169 65 65, contact their local Age UK office, or visit www.ageuk.org.uk.

To make a claim for Pension Credit, people should call the Pension Credit claim line on 0800 99 1234 or visit www.gov.uk/pension-credit/how-to-claim.

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Last updated: May 26 2022

-- Ends --

Notes to editors:

A copy of Age UK's 'It Doesn't Add Up' campaign report can be found here

[i] Age UK. February 2022. Research briefing: Estimating the impact of the April 2022 energy price cap rise on older households in England. Age UK [Online]. Available at: https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/safe-at-home/estimating-the-impact-of-the-april-2022-energy-price-cap-rise-on-older-households-in-england.pdf.

[ii] Age UK. May 2022. Research Briefing: Estimating the impact of rising prices on older households in the UK in 2022-23. Age UK [Online]. Available at https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/safe-at-home/estimating-the-impact-of-rising-prices-on-older-households-in-the-uk-in-2022-23-may-2022.pdf.

[iii] Older households are defined as households with at least one person aged 60 or over.

[iv] ‘Over the next year’ refers to 2022/23.

[v] The snapshot survey was carried out online.

[vi] Those in receipt of Pension Credit, which can be backdated for three months and tops up the weekly income of a single pensioner to £182.60 or a pensioner couple to £278.70, (or higher in some circumstances) could also be entitled to the following:

  • A Cold Weather Payment of £25, paid automatically when the average temperature is 0°C or below over seven consecutive days
  • £140 off electricity bill thorough the Warm Home Discount Scheme, if eligible
  • A free TV licence (if also over-75)
  • Free NHS dental treatment and help towards the cost of glasses and travel to hospital
  • Help with Council Tax
  • Help with rent
  • Cheaper phone and home broadband deals
  • Reduced water bills
  • An extra amount of Pension Credit for some carers worth up to £38.85 a week.

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