Poverty isn’t just for Christmas
Distribution of the £600 home energy payment has begun. However, for some older people in Northern Ireland, huge challenges remain as they struggle both with the cost of living and the risk of loneliness.
The £600 home energy payment began rolling out across Northern Ireland this week.
It coincides with freezing weather – snow and ice and the closure of some schools. For vulnerable people, in particular less-well-off older people, this money can’t come soon enough.
For anyone who pays their energy bills via direct debit, the money will be transferred straight into their bank account.
However, anyone using a keypad – or other method of payment, aside from direct debit – will receive vouchers in the post, which can only be redeemed at the Post Office. Around half a million people in Northern Ireland fall into this cohort.
For any older person who is financially insecure and does not pay their bills, getting to the post office in freezing weather to hand over some vouchers might not be the easiest thing to do (although there are ways to arrange for someone else to do this on your behalf). And, if they bank with Monzo, Nationwide or a credit union, the Post Office cannot transfer the payment into their account and they will only be able to receive it in cash. So, the payment is not perfect. But at least it is coming.
When the timeframe for the payments was announced, Eithne Gilligan, Head of Policy and Engagement at Age NI, said: “During the recent cold snap, we have heard of older people not turning their heating on through fear of not being able to afford it. This is a choice none of us should be facing, least of all those who are frail or immobile. We have issued health warnings over the very serious ill-effects of the cold on older people. We hope this announcement will give older people some certainty to allow them to plan their budget to stay warm and well over the coming weeks.”
However, a one-off payment of £600 may well be helpful but we should all remember that this is a buttress in response to wild inflation in energy prices.
Winter can be especially tough for those who are older. Just ahead of Christmas, Age NI launched a campaign asking for donations to support its advice line, which the organisation said has never been busier.
The sad truth is that poverty isn’t just for Christmas. Older people suffering with the cost of living, or those at risk of loneliness, will be in much the same position now as they were a month ago.
Ahead of the festive season, Age NI carried out a survey of older people which identified financial worries and concerns about loneliness as two major concerns.
More than half of those who responded (55%) said it would be the toughest Christmas of their lives.
- 52% of those surveyed said they were worried they would have to reduce their social activities
- A third said they wouldn’t be able to invite people over due to the cost of heating and feeding others
- 40% of those surveyed say the cost of living crisis is making them feel more alone
- A third said they expected to feel more isolated in the Christmas just past than in any other year
Age NI was also keen to stress that “loneliness is a major issue among the older population all year round: for example, 79% say they rely on television and radio for company, and 31% visit the supermarket just to be with others.”
Brenda Kearns, head of the charity’s Advice and Advocacy service said: “Since the summer, the number of calls to our advice line has risen by twofold every month: I have never seen it as busy. People calling us are very worried, they’re anxious about how they cope with their set limited income, and how they’re going to make ends meet.”
John, who is 82 years old, contacted the Age NI Advice line after a recently discharge from hospital. He was feeling very low and as he had extra care needs, and was very worried about whether he could afford to live on his pension.
Ms Kearns said: “By doing some financial checks with John, we were able to help him get extra benefits every week, which hugely changed his quality of life. Like many older people, John didn’t even know he was missing out on these entitlements. We want people to get in touch and see how we can help. It’s just wonderful to know you’re making a real difference to someone’s life: from how John was that first day, to how he is now, it’s just life-changing for him.”
John said: “The difference of having a few extra pounds every month meant that I could get out, I could meet up with people. I felt my health improve because of it, and my entire lifestyle changed.”
Paschal McKeown, Charity Director at Age NI, said: “Age NI will be continuing to provide emotional and practical assistance to older people who badly need it throughout the year. In these difficult times, our advice service is more in demand than ever before and we rely on the generosity of the public to help us reach older people who need our help, so please do give what you can.”
Winter is a tough time to be older. It’s always difficult being poor – and, with the cost of living continuing to soar, that is acutely true right now. And all this is on top of wider challenges, such as the creaking health service.
For those who are both older and in a poor financial situation, things have rarely been so difficult.
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