Cold comfort for the elderly
As a charity campaign encourages the elderly to keep warm this winter, David Clensy talks to a Bristol pensioner who says he can't afford heating
HIS age-crafted hand wavers for a moment over the heating switch, before he gives an ironic chuckle, and reaches instead for another blanket.It's not been much of a Christmas in this small Kingswood flat. As Big Ben chimes midnight tonight, and a new year is ushered in, the elderly resident of this home will be alone with his television set; remembering happier times.
For 64-year-old Jim things started going wrong when his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease in 2005.
Forced to give up his job of 17 years at a plaster works, in order to care for his wife, Jim soon found any savings he had slipping away.
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Today he is one of the city's hidden elderly – with very little money, intimidating debts, and no friends or relatives that visit, Jim, now a widower, is reticent about turning on the heating "just for him" – he prefers to bundle himself up in blankets.
He's exactly the sort of person being targeted by the Surviving Winter campaign, launched recently by Bristol charity, the Quartet Community Foundation, who are working in association with Saga to raise awareness of the plight of Britain's elderly poor.
Jim, like so many of his generation, feels ashamed by his plight, and has asked for us to change his name to protect his anonymity.
"I'm not proud to be living like this; to be this short of money in my old age," he tells me. "It is humiliating. To be honest, there is very little for me to live for these days.
"My wife was eventually taken into a care home, because her condition was deteriorating rapidly, and I struggled by myself. I turned to drink, especially after she passed away in 2009. Life didn't seem worth living any more, so I hit the bottle.
"I became estranged from all five of our children, and found myself alone."
With an income of just £300 a month from a company pension, and much of the money being spent on alcohol, Jim quickly started to lose control of his bills.
"I found myself with a £1,000 debt with my water company and a similar debt with my electricity company – but they were both very good, and set up a plan where I just paid £5-£6 a month.
"But I didn't have the same help from my gas company, who sent me a bill for £1,100 and simply demanded the money, even though I don't have it.
"I managed to stop drinking, and get advice from the Bristol Debt Advice Centre, but I am still waiting to hear whether British Gas will allow me to pay my debt off in installments."
Meanwhile, Jim has become nervous about using his gas and electricity.
"I cook on an electric hob, and avoid using the oven," he says. "And I never put the heating on, no matter how cold it is outside.
"When it gets really cold I just use some common sense and wrap myself up in blankets. It's no kind of a life. sitting here in my flat trying to keep warm, but I've been left with very little choice."
Caroline Duckworth, chief executive of the Quartet Community Foundation, said: "Winter is a dangerous time for Bristol's older people. Fifteen per cent of households live in fuel poverty and around half of those include somebody over 60.
"Fuel poverty causes serious health problems including heart attacks and strokes. According to the 2012 South West Public Health Observatory Bristol health profile there were 184 so-called 'excess', that is, unnecessary, deaths in Bristol in winter– the majority of them older people.
"We also want to tackle the problem of isolation among older people during winter. The winter can be a more isolating time for older people as they can become more confined to the house in the colder months. Local help which includes a regular visit to check the older person is coping is vital.
"Those living in rural areas and those who live alone are most at risk. Last year we raised £47,000 through our Surviving Winter campaign, thanks to the generosity of local people.
"Through local community partners such as Age UK, Citizen's Advice Bureau and Care and Repair agencies, we provided help such as home visits to older people, financial advice and support to manage fuel bills, equipment to provide heating where existing heating has failed, repairs and maintenance as well as energy efficiency advice to ensure more long term solutions to this critical issue."
Jilly Edwards, who is overseeing the appeal for the Quartet Community foundation said: "Last year, a small grant of £500 enabled a couple in their late eighties with multiple health and mobility problems to increase the number of heaters in their home as they had no heating in the house other than in the hall and sitting room.
"This has made a huge difference to their comfort and well-being. If you are not fuel-poor, think about donating some or all of your winter fuel payment. Even if you do not receive a winter fuel payment you can still donate; you could help an older person to survive this winter. Any money you donate is greatly appreciated and will be spent locally."
Contact Jilly Edwards on 01225 420300, email jilly.edwards@quartetcf. org.uk or visit www.quartetcf.org.uk to download a donations form.