200,000 elderly at risk in sub-zero Scotland

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ONE in five pensioners is at risk amid growing fears they are unable to cope with the sub-zero temperatures in Scotland's worst winter for two generations.

• An Edinburgh schoolgirl enjoys a day away from lessons - and looking at icicles. Picture: Neil Hanna

Up to 200,000 pensioners in Scotland have been left vulnerable after being trapped in their homes by the icy weather, acc-ording to the Scottish Pensioners' Forum (SPF).

Treacherous road conditions have meant that council care services have been reduced in some areas, while many old people are unable to obtain supplies of fresh food or keep their homes warm.

Now local councils and neighbours have been urged by campaigners to do all they can to help OAPs cope, or Scotland could face a death toll among old people this winter that is much higher than last year's total of 3,000.

As satellite images taken over Scotland yesterday showed a country in the grip of a total whiteout, experts warned the problems will only get worse if forecasts are proved correct and the severe cold spell continues into next week.

The heavy snows which have caused school and road closures throughout the country were forecast to subside today, but attempts to get Scotland moving again are likely to be thwarted by freezing temperatures.

Fuel retailers said supplies of petrol and diesel were running dangerously low while grocery shoppers were confronted with rows of empty shelves as stores struggled to get access to fresh supplies of staples such as bread and milk.

The east of Scotland suffered some of the worst weather yesterday. Edinburgh airport remained closed until 4pm while rail journeys to and from stations in Fife, the Lothians and the Scottish Borders suffered serious disruption. Motorists faced blizzard conditions and black ice on many major routes.

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Meanwhile, education secretary Mike Russell became embroiled in a row with education chiefs over "blanket closures" of schools.

However, it was concerns over the fate of Scotland's most vulnerable residents that caused the most serious concern.

Elinor McKenzie, chairwoman of the SPF, said there are a million pensioners in Scotland, and "one in five is facing severe difficulties".

She warned that 3,000 older people die every year in Scotland in the winter months because of the cold conditions, and that the figure could be higher this year if more is not done to protect the elderly during the current freeze, which has seen temperatures plummet as low as -20C in some parts of Scotland."This is a shocking figure in this day and age," said Mrs McKenzie, adding that many pensioners are struggling to pay fuel bills as energy companies put prices up. "We need to ensure that the hardships older people are suffering in the current weather conditions do not make that figure any higher this year.

"People who are in their late 70s or 80s and those who are already eligible for free personal care - which means they already have some problems - will be particularly vulnerable in the current weather conditions. In some areas, carers are just not managing to get through to people. Some people really rely on carers for all kinds of things - and they find it very distressing if they do not know whether or not they will turn up."

She said she felt that care for the elderly had suffered due to cutbacks in the public sector. "There doesn't seem to be any particular emergency procedure in place for eventualities like this, which is very concerning," she added.

The SPF estimates that there are around one million old people in Scotland.

Forecasters yesterday said the cold weather would continue for the foreseeable future - predicting more chaos today for travellers, school pupils and workers across Scotland.

Supermarkets have continued to run short of fresh food supplies, while problems at the Grangemouth refinery have meant that fuel supplies are beginning to run dry at petrol stations. Ongoing disruption to the postal service has hit small businesses, delaying vital invoice payments and hitting their cash flow.

The Scottish Government and local councils have urged people to lend a hand to help their elderly neighbours.

"The Scottish Older Person's helpline has had a lot of inquiries - we've been absolutely inundated," said Age Scotland spokesman Callum Chomczuk. "People have called us about issues ranging from the fact their boiler has broken down - leaving them living in freezing conditions - to that roads outside of their homes haven't been gritted so they can't get out."

He said that a major problem for older people was not being able to access shops to buy essential food supplies, pick up prescriptions or obtain other essential supplies.

"There are a lot of people who are stuck in their homes. There is a shortage of food in a lot of supermarkets.There is a feeling that people are starting to panic buy and that puts a lot of pressure on older people who are visiting the shops much more frequently and who tend to go to their local store."

Grace MacDonald, 81, said the pavements outside of her Inverness home were icy and difficult to walk on. "I am very lucky because I am fit and I have managed to get out for even a short time every day," said Mrs MacDonald. "But I know a lot of people who have been stuck inside for days."

The problems being faced by pensioners in Dundee have been tackled by an auxiliary nurse at the city's Ninewells Hospital who set up a Facebook webpage to match volunteers with elderly people trapped in their homes.

Samantha Glennie and her brother Lee Macaulay have set up the website "Helping the Dundee Folk in Distress" as a focal point where volunteers can offer to get vital supplies to people who have been snowbound since the cold snap began.

The initiative was praised by scores of Dundonians offering their help. One, Babs Beaton stated: "Bless you both - you're an inspiration."

Scotland's chief medical officer, Dr Harry Burns, urged people to take responsibility for their vulnerable neighbours.

"Be a good neighbour - check up on people living nearby," said Dr Burns. "Offer to go shopping for them or make sure they have plenty of food in the house.

"People need to make sure that they keep warm, particularly elderly people."