Living on the Line
The Cost of Living Crisis is hitting older people hard. We look into the particular problems facing older people this winter. As well as examining the issues, we look at some of the solutions to the problem and meet some of the amazing people and organisations working to get older people through this difficult time.
WORDS: TOM BAILEY
DEC/JAN 2022/23 ISSUE
If you had to popped to your local shop last year for a pint of milk it would have cost you about 42p. Milk been around that price for about 15 years. Nowadays the average cost of a pint of milk is £1 And it’s not just milk. Butter, eggs, bread: the essentials of daily life. Everything is costing more. And some people don’t have the money to spare. Older people are feeling the pinch. This rise in food prices is a stark example of how the “Cost of Living Crisis” affects people in real life. It’s not just scary headlines in the paper or on TV: all of us are affected every day by how much their supermarket bill comes to. These increases can often be sudden and unexpected. “It wouldn’t be so bad if they increased prices a bit at a time,” says Maureen, an older person we spoke to in Armley. “But instead of 5 pence, it’s 20, 30 or 50 pence more.” If you’ve budgeted for your shopping to cost £30 and you come away with it costing £40, it can be shocking and difficult to manage.
These rising food costs might be fine for wealthy older people. Poorer people struggle to absorb the rising costs of food and services into their weekly budgets. According to the Centre for Ageing Better, there are over 2 million pensioners living in poverty in the UK. That’s nearly one in five. The number of poor older people is likely to rise over the next year. People over 85 are particularly at risk, as are older women and those living on their own.
All of us will know about the increases in the costs of energy. Whatever the reasons - the war in Ukraine, the post-Covid recovery, worldwide inflation problems – it’s normal people who have to shoulder the rises. Energy costs can hit older people more deeply. As we age, we tend to feel the cold more, we live less active lives and our health can suffer. “I can’t just sit in a cold house,” says Graham, 78. “It’s all very well telling me put another jumper on. I’m freezing!” Older people who are retired tend to spend more time at home and many have physical barriers to getting out and getting moving.
Older people have particular problems: it’s not just heating and eating. We spoke to Dawn Newsome, who runs Armley Helping Hands. She told us that some older people are having to stop paying for help around the house. “They’re cutting their cleaners,” says Dawn. Often it’s older people who live on their own and who are disabled. It’s not just the dirty floors that will be neglected. “It means nobody’s keeping an eye on them. It’s not just about hoovering, but making sure they’re ok – how is their physical health, their mental health?”
Age UK recently released a report which highlighted that many older people are cutting back on care and health costs as the crisis bites. “Sometimes I don't take my painkillers or eye drops because they are too expensive,” says one older person quoted in the report. “I cannot afford them.” Caroline Abrahams is the Age UK director and she is keen to highlight the issue of people cutting back on care costs. “It is alarming that well over a million older people are already cutting back or stopping their social care across the UK, or expect to do so in the months to come, because they can’t afford the cost,” says Caroline. “This is potentially disastrous because if you are an older person with care needs, this support is not a ‘nice to have’ but essential in enabling you to stay fit and well. Cutting back or stopping care in this situation threatens to pile extra pressure on the NHS, our hospitals especially, as it greatly increases the chances of serious ill health and injury.”
The Cost of Living affects care companies as well as individuals. And these costs inevitably get passed on to older people and their families. It’s something Caroline Abrahams is particularly concerned about: “Without the care they require, frail and unwell older people are more likely to fall, become malnourished and dehydrated, fail to take their medication, and become seriously ill because an emerging health problem will not be noticed early enough to nip it in the bud. Care workers are the only visitors many such older people receive each day and they play a vital role in sustaining their mental and physical health. Without them, it’s inevitable that some older people will suffer, invisible and unseen, behind closed doors.”
All these problems have led some to conclude that the Cost of Living Crisis is actually a Health Crisis. Colin Cox is a Director of Public Health in the North of England. "The Cost of Living Crisis has overtaken Covid-19 as the major public health threat over the coming months,” says Colin. "Difficulty in heating houses leads directly to increased lung and heart health problems and contributes to the higher rate of hospitalisations and deaths that we see over the winter, so I’m particularly worried about what might happen this year. Winter is always a particularly difficult time for many people, including those who are older and on lower incomes, and this year is likely to be exceptionally so."
“Soup and a roll won’t cut it for some older people. A short-term solution just isn’t enough. Faced with mounting bills and dwindling pensions, some need more than a cheap meal deal.
All this is very worrying. Older people are worried too. Anxiety about paying heating bills can be just as harmful to health as being cold. Mental health is a huge issue. The rise in energy prices and what support is out there can be bewildering. “People don’t understand the lingo,” say one support worker in Leeds. Older people are cutting costs – but to what end? What sort of life are people supposed to lead? Aren’t older people entitled to a bit of joy, of hope? It’s another issue Age UK boss Caroline Abrahams is passionate about: “Some people are having to forego all but the essentials of everyday life, like food and utilities. Looking after pets is becoming quite a stretch for some and suddenly little treats like lunch with a friend at a local pub, or a trip into town to visit the theatre or cinema may be financially out of reach. For those living alone especially, this makes life rather soulless and certainly much more solitary, because such activities are precious opportunities for companionship. The way in which lack of funds is reducing many older people's social lives and breeding loneliness, even among those who normally feel immune, is one of the important, but less obvious harms brought on by inflation.”
On top of all of these issues, there’s a big question hanging over pensions. Will state pensions rise with inflation? Rosie McGregor is the Chair of UNISON’s national retired members committee. “The government removed the triple lock for this year and have said they would reinstate it for April 2023,” says Rosie. “But with so many U-turns this government is making, there is no guarantee that they won’t renege on the triple lock.” Caroline Abrahams again: “Most older people feel strongly about the restoration of the triple lock next year: this offers much needed hope of better times to come, before it is too late for them to enjoy them." Who knows what the government will do? At the time of writing we’ve had three prime ministers this year. By the time you read this, we might have a fourth!
It’s a grim picture. But there are solutions. People working tirelessly to support older people in Leeds and beyond. Scores of organisations set up to work with older people are pivoting away from Covid and towards the Cost of Living Crisis. Even private companies are offering some support. Lots of the major supermarkets are doing their bit. Asda is offering people over 60 some soup, a roll and unlimited tea and coffees for £1 as part of its new 'winter warmer' initiatives. You can go into any of Asda’s cafes at any time of the day throughout November and December to take advantage of the offer. Mohsin Issa is Asda's Co-owner. “We know that this winter is set to be incredibly hard for thousands of pensioners as they worry about how to keep themselves warm in the face of rising living costs and a fixed income,” he says. “We're hoping our new offer of soup and hot drinks for over 60s will prove just as impactful for those who need it most.” Yes, it’s a good advert for Asda –they are a business and have to make money. But beggars can’t be choosers. And there’s a similar offer at Morrison’s if you prefer a different retailer.
Soup and a roll won’t cut it for some older people. A short-term solution just isn’t enough. Faced with mounting bills and dwindling pensions, some need more than a cheap meal deal. This is where Neighbourhood Networks come in. In every area of Leeds there are people working for organisations who are looking out for older people. Dawn Newsome runs Armley Helping Hands. Dawn thinks organisations like hers are particularly well placed to help. “One of the great benefits of the Neighbourhood Networks is that there are certain members of staff you have been employed there for a long time,” says Dawn. “That means we build up a relationship, a level of trust.” But what about those people who can’t walk in and ask for help? “We really have to get to those people who are really struggling. A lot of people just can’t walk into our service to keep warm. So we have to have flexibility to really respond people’s needs. We paid transport fares for a lady who was having cancer treatment. She couldn’t afford the taxi, so we funded that. We had another gentlemen who had an electric wheelchair, but the wheels were broken. He didn’t have the finances to replace them. And that affected his ability to get around and be independent. It took my team an hour-and-a-half to sort it out and change the wheels – at a reduced cost. And that meant so much to him.”
Third sector organisations are facing problems of their own with the cost of living. “The Cost of Living Crisis is having an impact on us as an organisation,” says Dawn. “We don’t want that knock-on cost to be passed on to our older people and have to reduce what we do.” Funding is always an issue: “We’re always trying to get funding and resources to help people in our community. Funding doesn’t come without challenges. It means we have to increase our capacity, which increases the demand. One of the biggest things is sustainability. Our older people don’t disappear after 12 weeks. They need continuity. People need to know that when they’re facing difficult times that there’s somewhere to go. There’s a telephone number they can ring where they’ll get a response and get some support from someone who knows them.”
Armley Helping Hands is doing very particular things to help people through the crisis. A lot of the time it’s about alleviating anxiety and helping people navigate their way through the maze of government support and handouts. “We got funding from Staying Well in Winter and we’re doing Sharing the Warmth pop-up cafes,” Dawn tell us. “These are information cafes that help support older people and their families to get the information they need to help them through this crisis. We turn doctor’s waiting rooms into a pop-up café and have conversations about how to stay warm with older people. We also deliver them in local churches – and we speak to people in the street too! You’ll see us keeping warm on Armley Town Street!” Alex Sobel, Labour MP for Leeds North West supports the idea of Neighbourhood Networks: "I would say to all my constituents who are struggling to reach out to local community organisations. There are many great ones, as well as our local food banks and citizens advice. These services offer a lifeline to people.”
There are basic questions all older people need to ask themselves. Are you claiming the right benefits? You might be entitled to pension credits. The DWP estimates that a million people are entitled to thousands of pounds in support – but they’re not claiming it. Check it out. Are you saving as much energy as you can? Turn off the lights; turn of appliances you’re not using; wash clothes on 30 degrees; draught-proof your windows; get a smart meter etc. All this seems like teaching grandma to suck eggs (literally) but doing some basic energy-saving can reduce bills and help people feel a bit more in control.
We’ve all heard of food banks. Sadly, they’ve been a feature in our communities for many years. But a new initiative has been developed on similar lines: Warm Banks or Warm Spaces. The idea is to provide a place where people can gather for free in a warm, safe, welcoming space – and maybe enjoy a hot drink and some company. Leeds City Council has developed a map of Warm Spaces that you can visit; these include libraries, community centres hubs and cafes. Councillor Mary Harland said older people can go to Warm Hubs to "keep warm, access services and get free guidance and advice to save money and keep their costs down this winter". Again, it’s a short-term solution, but if you’re struggling to heat your home, it can be a relief to know there’s somewhere warm to go.
Adele Rae has set up one of these “Warm Spaces” in Kirkstall. The Heat Café operates from St Stephen’s Church Hall on Monday and Wednesday lunchtimes. Adele runs Kirkstall Valley Development Trust (KVDT), a local project that encompasses a farm, a food bank, children’s activities and much more. When we meet her in Kirkstall, Adele explains the concept of the Heat Café. “It’s just somewhere that’s warm,” she says. “We were already providing food parcels to people, but we became worried. We were looking at the Cost of Living crisis and we realised that people aren’t going to be able to afford to heat and eat. What are we going to do as a community to support local people?” Some older people were living on the line, even before the crisis hit. “We were there was already a need, but this was on a whole new level,” says Adele. “The simple idea was this: we open this space up that would be warm. People can come in and just get something to eat.” It’s as simple as that. But it’s not just about food. “It’s about reducing social isolation. We can’t afford to keep people warm in their own homes but the next best thing is to come here and get warm with us.”
The cafe is a welcoming, friendly space with a home-made feel. There’s a family atmosphere, but newcomers are welcomed in. Joyce and Irene have both been part of the KDVT community for some years; they come to get a hot lunch. “I picked it up off Facebook,” says Joyce, as she waits for her stew and dumplings to appear. “I’ve been up here a few times.” Both women live locally and walk down together. They try to get out and about as much as possible, weather permitting. “It’s a relief not to have to make a meal,” says Joyce. How are they coping with the increase in energy bills? “I wear a vest, jumper and cardigan,” Joyce confides. “Come teatime I put on my zip-up with the hood up. Then I’ve got my big, fleecey blanket. Anything to keep warm.” Irene is more sanguine. “I’ve got my heating on. Bugger ‘em!” The pair enjoy a hot lunch and a chance to catch up.
Volunteers are an integral part of the KVDT family. Andrew, who serves Joyce and Irene their lunch, travels over from Calverley to give his time. Jayne lives locally and volunteers a day a week with KVDT. “It’s important to feel part of something,” Jayne says. “When you see good things happening in the community – and you’re part of it – it’s good for your well-being.” Volunteering helps others, but it also helps Jayne. In hard times it’s important to be able to see that things can get better, that there can be a solution. “It’s people, isn’t it? People are always the solution. People pulling together. Connection and belonging – that’s the key.” Adele agrees. “It’s a holistic approach,” she says. Older people might need a hot mela and space to warm up, but there are other things that they’ll need help with – benefit forms, help with dodgy boilers. Like Armley Helping Hands, KVDT know their community and know how to help them. Adele has first-hand expeirecne of how life can be difficult, so she knows that people can be the solution. “In the middle of the last decade – around 2013 – me and my kids had a really tough time,” she says. “It was the people that surrounded me that made my life better. I was aware that with austerity and everything else, a lot of people were also struggling. And we could do something about it. That’s why I do it!”
During the pandemic, older people were encouraged to stay at home. In many ways, this Cost of Living Crisis is the opposite. Should we instead be encouraging older people to get out of the house, to go to a warm space, to get involved with their local Neighbourhood Network? As the winter sets in and days get colder and darker, it’s important for both our physical and mental health to be around other people. The older people we met in Armley and in Kirkstall certainly relished the opportunity to sit in a warm building and chat to others – if only to share their struggles and complain about food prices. Anyone old enough to remember the 1940s and 1950s will remember rationing and the scarcity of goods and services. Are older people better placed than others to endure hardships? Many have been through hard times before and can weather the storm. Others think times have changed for the worse. “It’s not as easy as it was years ago”, says Hazel, who we met in Armley. “Everyone helped each other then.” Could everybody help each other now? Could we get back some of that oft-invoked “Blitz Spirit”? Times might have changed, but in many areas of Leeds, people are harking back to a more traditional attitude and supporting each other. Money is tight, but to repeat the words of Jayne, who volunteers in Kirkstall, “people are always the solution.”
Thank you to everybody who spoke to us for this piece.
Jo Volpe runs the Leeds Older People’s Forum, which is a network of organisations who work with older people to support them. Jo was appointed CEO earlier this year, so we asked her to share her thoughts about the particular challenges facing older people this Winter.
Why does the Cost of Living Crisis particularly affect older people?
When we retire, we work out how much we will need to live on. But when something like this comes along, it just isn’t enough. You think, “Where do I go from here?” Huge rises in inflation, challenges in paying for accommodation – it all hits older people disproportionally. People might not leave work through choice; it might be through ill health or because of caring responsibilities. Some people have scrimped and saved to retire, they may not be in a particularly strong financial position as it is. Especially if they have issues with their health or they’re caring for a loved one. We’re hearing about people in similar situations: they’ve got what’s called “packages of care” to help them with daily living, but they’re having to stop paying for them to afford their heating bills. Not all of this is covered by the council or by the government. People might be paying someone to help with making meals or with daily tasks – and they’re having to stop this. I’m thinking about the frailer end of the population.
And this affects people’s mental health too?
It's very complicated. People have to think about how they are going to cope over the Winter, looking after themselves and their family members. It seems to be one thing after another with all the costs going up. This all adds to people’s worries and anxieties. People are very worried about the prospect of heating their homes. They’re worried to put the heat on at all, because they don’t know how much it’s going to cost them. Even I don’t understand how much we have to pay now. And nationally there’s evidence that older people are having to come out of retirement and go back to work because they can't make ends meet. There was a story about a lady in Leeds who was 65 and was job searching. Sadly, you’re far less likely to get a new job as you age.
What is LOPF doing to help?
There is support. The council has a welfare rights service, there’s Citizen’s Advice. A lot of people are providing information. There are food pantries and people are entitled to food vouchers. At the moment LOPF is trying to understand how our member organisations are coping. What impact is it having on small grass-roots charities supporting older people? A lot of the workforce are not on big salaries, a lot of them work part-time and we’re hearing that some of them are having to leave work because it’s expensive to be there. Around half of them say they might have to reduce the workforce or the services they can offer. You’re funded only a limited amount and if one bill goes up, you have to find the saving somewhere else. Most do feel like they can survive. So we’re trying to make local authorities aware of the situation, whilst also understanding that they’re in a difficult position too, with funding cuts from government.
What are the answers?
We’ve come through Covid and now we’re on to the next crisis! People talk about the response to Covid and how good it was. People say, “There were all these volunteers, wasn’t it great? And there was a feeling of community spirit.” But a lot of people were on furlough. People still want to help. People naturally want to give. So we’re trying to find ways that people can help when they have to go to work too. Older people want to help each other. They don’t want to be “done to”.
What would you say to people who wanted to help?
I would make a phone call to my local Neighbourhood Network. And there’s a volunteer centre in Leeds Kirkgate Market. You can just pop in and they can connect you up with an organisation where you’ll be really helpful. And if you’re struggling yourself, it’s the Neighbourhood Networks that are the ones who give great support.
How do you feel about getting older?
You get a bit more confidence with age. You’re a bit more contented in yourself, a bit more comfortable in your skin. I’m really pleased to be working at Leeds Older People’s Forum. I wanted to work for an organisation that was passionate about the rights of older people. That saw older people as assets, as interesting people that we can work together with.
EXPLAINER: Neighbourhood Networks
Neighbourhood Networks are organisations in Leeds that offer particular support to older people. They get some funding from Leeds City Council to work with the most vulnerable and potentially isolated people. There are Neighbourhood Networks in every area of Leeds and all offer activities, drop-ins and volunteering opportunities.
You can find your local organisation online at www.opforum.org.uk or by ringing 0113 2441697