Pensioners face a Christmas crisis

PENSIONERS in the East of England face a cash and cold weather crisis over the winter period, the East Anglian Daily Times can reveal today.Latest research shows that single pensioners in East Anglia owe more than £145 million, while over 2,000 elderly people in the East are expected to die from cold-related illnesses this winter.

PENSIONERS in the East of England face a cash and cold weather crisis over the winter period, the East Anglian Daily Times can reveal today.

Latest research shows that single pensioners in East Anglia owe more than £145 million, while over 2,000 elderly people in the East are expected to die from cold-related illnesses this winter.

According to Age Concern, last winter saw 2,100 pensioners die as a result of the cold - a 15% increase on the average mortality rate.

Shockingly, UK pensioners are more at risk from the cold than any other Northern Europe country apart from Ireland - ahead of those in much colder climates like Austria and Finland.

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Speaking to the EADT, Jack Thain , chairman of the Suffolk Pensioner's Association, urged people to make sure they keep an eye on elderly neighbours over the winter period.

"There just isn't enough care taken of the elderly," he said. "The trouble is that people don't go along and make sure their neighbours are alright.

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"So many people have a fall over the winter and then lay there until such time that somebody notices that the milk hasn't been taken in or something like that.

"Then, of course, it's too late because they can't take lying in a cold room for such a long time.

"If you know of elderly people in the neighbourhood then you should make the effort to check on them.

"If everybody did that with one or two elderly people then it would solve one of the great problems of growing old in the winter time."

Of the cold weather and debt problems, Mr Thain added: "Cold winds will penetrate a house which is not totally draft-proofed and that causes a great deal of problems.

"Also, if the temperature does rocket down overnight, that can cause problems because so many elderly people don't know that they've got to make sure that their pipes are covered to stop them freezing.

"These monies that pensioners get in the winter - cold weather payments and things like that - should be taken apart and added on to the standard pension and paid week by week.

"Then people wouldn't have to look forward to these extra handouts, and they would have the money to be able to buy in when the weather is good and get ready for when the weather is cold.

"Christmas, if you've got family around isn't a great deal of bother. But if you're on your own, then you're in trouble."

Colchester Pensioners' Action Group committee member Tony Constable said most pensioners had been schooled not to spend money they did not have but over the last few years had watched their assets dwindle away.

Mr Constable, who has orchestrated a high-profile campaign on behalf of pensioners against crippling council tax rises, believes the demands of government has left them "with no fat on the bone."

He said his group would continue to do all it could for its vulnerable members.

"Many of them have lived for the past seven or eight years on fresh air," he said. "I am worried about this winter although I do not know the extent of the problem that's been brought forward.

"We have people in our group who are worse off than others and we do keep watch. There is particular concern for some single women on their own because they are likely to have smaller pensions and there is also a view that they do not want to 'live off the parish'."

Meanwhile, at a time when the cost of Christmas is just beginning to kick in, pensioners also face inflation-busting increases in their water bills - adding to an ever-increasing debt mountain.

Research carried out by retirement housing and finance specialist Economic Life showed pensioners in Anglia owe at least £145 million - an average of more than £2,000 per person - despite owning property worth some £11 billion.

Nationally, there are 2.1 million single people aged 65 and over in debt, with just under 75,000 in East Anglia.

Mark Neal, Group Operations Director at Economic Lifestyle said: "In many cases people aged 65 and over who live alone have fallen into a cycle of debt which is hard to reverse.

"Despite sitting on £11 billion worth of equity in their homes, single pensioner debtors in East Anglia have suffered from a number of external factors such as poor returns on investments and lower annuity rates which reduced significantly their disposable income.

"This is a particularly important issue for the millions of single pensioners facing the hardships of a winter alone."

The release of the figures coincided with Chancellor Gordon Brown announcing a £50 rise in the annual one-off winter fuel payments for those over 70 in his Pre-Budget report.

The rise, which will cost the Government £260 million, comes into effect next year and will see the over 80s receive a total of £350 and the over 70s, £250.

But Mervyn Kohler, head of public affairs for Help the Aged, said: "The Chancellor's announcement can only be described as another patch of sticking plaster.

"It still represents a failure both to address the basis for financing local services and provide a decent income to our pensioners.

"Their needs for social and community care remain disgracefully under-funded."

Chris Lane, a spokesman for Suffolk County Council, said: "Social care services staff are advising everyone to keep an eye out during the cold winter period for elderly and vulnerable neighbours.

"Classic signs that someone is in difficulties are mail or newspapers hanging out of the letterbox, milk bottles left on the doorstep uncollected, curtains remaining closed throughout the day.

"If you have any concerns at all about an elderly or vulnerable person living nearby, do knock on the door to check they are ok.

"If it snows check if they can get to the shops and have what they need in the house encourage people to use their heating and if you have serious concerns then contact the emergency services.

"The main thing is to be a good neighbour and keep a lookout for anyone who may benefit from some help and support. Something as simple as saying hello can make a world of difference."

As part of its Christmas campaign, Help the Aged is offering 300 of its Cold Can Kill advice packs to EADT readers.

To get hold of one, write to The Cold Can Kill pack (East Anglian Daily Times), Help the Aged, Unit 4, Crusader Business Park Clacton on Sea CO15 4TN.

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