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Author: Belfast Telegraph
Published on 04 December 2012 11:00 AM

Pensioners in Northern Ireland are missing out on up to £200m a year in unclaimed benefits, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.

Thousands of older people are consistently failing to apply for government funds they are genuinely entitled to.

This ‘lost’ money — which comprises a variety of benefits including pension credit and housing benefit — could go a long way in the battle to prevent winter deaths.

Spread the Warmth is an Age NI campaign aimed at easing the suffering of frail, vulnerable elderly people, some of whom could end up dying needlessly during the bitter cold winter.

As part of this initiative, the Belfast Telegraph’s Feel the Benefit drive will encourage pensioners to take up benefits they are entitled to. Our objective is to get 100 local senior citizens calling the Age NI helpline over the next five days to claim money that is legitimately theirs.

Age NI has calculated that a successful benefits check can boost an older person’s weekly income by £62 — or £3,224 a year. That means our campaign could potentially unlock £6,200 in unallocated funds in just five days. That equates to a staggering £322,400 a year — another indicator of how much benefit is lying unclaimed. Sobering new figures reveal that 24,000 people died in the UK alone from the effects of cold weather last winter.

Across Northern Ireland, hard-pressed households are struggling to cope with soaring bills, and many face a stark choice between keeping warm or putting food on the table.

People who work with the elderly said it was uncivilised for the UK to tolerate more cold-related deaths than snow-bound countries like Finland.

Age NI chief executive Anne O’Reilly said it was a disgrace that the lives of vulnerable citizens are being put at risk because they can’t afford to switch the heating on. “Our research suggests that up to £2.3m worth of pension credit alone is going begging every week, for a variety of reasons,” she said.

Chief among them is a perceived stigma attached to accepting what some see hand-outs. This unallocated cash is then sent back to the Treasury — and not injected into the local economy.

Ms O’Reilly added: “One call to our advice service could make a real difference to an older person’s income, so we’re encouraging people to get in touch.”

Belfast Telegraph editor Mike Gilson said it was imperative to raise awareness of this important issue.

“'Feel the Benefit' is our campaign to help Age NI spread the warmth this winter, and to encourage pensioners to take up the benefits they are entitled to,” said Mr Gilson. “We are living in a difficult economic climate and times are very tough, but no one should be suffering in silence.

“Help is out there, and in this modern day society it is our collective responsibility to let everyone know how to access the services they need.”

One local carer said action was needed to end the scandal of unnecessary winter deaths among older people. “Even in very cold countries such as Finland, such deaths are much lower than here — because they take staying warm seriously and prepare for cold weather,” the carer said.

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For more information: Call Age NI Advice: 0808 808 7575