No place for pensioner poverty - Brian Sloan

Soaring fuel prices and empty supermarket shelves have left families across Scotland feeling the pinch. Many of us are already looking for ways to cut back, whether that’s driving less or saving money on the weekly shop.

Brian Sloan, chief executive, Age Scotland.
Brian Sloan, chief executive, Age Scotland.

But many older households are facing an especially bleak winter as they struggle to balance their budgets on a fixed income. For hundreds of thousands already living in poverty – or just on the cusp – this couldn’t have come at a worse time.

It’s already a national scandal that huge numbers are spending their later years counting their pennies and struggling to pay their bills. A staggering 150,000 pensioners nationwide live in relative poverty – around the population of Dundee. Of these 120,000 live in “persistent poverty”, and this figure has steadily risen over the last decade.

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Our helpline regularly takes desperate calls from older people faced with the choice between paying their bills and buying food to eat. This has worsened over the last year, with people facing higher energy bills due to spending more time at home, and feeling cut off from their communities, family and friends. Many don’t know who to turn to or are too embarrassed to ask for help.

Too many elderly people can’t afford to heat their homes properly,

And it’s not just those at the older end of the age spectrum that are feeling the squeeze. Our recent Big Survey of more than 3500 over-50s nationwide found that a quarter feel under financial pressure, with fuel bills the number one concern for 82 per cent.

As well as the health impact, older workers have also been hard hit by the pandemic. Those just below State Pension age have been more likely than younger colleagues to be furloughed or even lose their jobs. In some cases, this has resulted in them being forced into early retirement without savings to fall back on.

As we look to a recovery, it’s vital that older people are not left struggling to get by. This is especially important as we go into winter, as the energy crisis and rising living costs pose an immediate threat to thousands of vulnerable households.

Too many already can’t afford to heat their homes properly, putting themselves at greater risk of health conditions. And worries about money can lead to isolation and seriously impact mental health.

We’ve already called on the Scottish and UK Governments to consider a one-off top-up to the Winter Fuel Payment for the poorest households. Just £70 could make a big difference to those who have been worst affected.

We also need to make sure that no one misses out on the social security support they’re entitled to. Pension Credit, which could lift many out of poverty, has a very low rate of uptake, with an estimated four in 10 of those who are eligible missing out.

This adds up to an estimated £332 million that could make a huge difference to their standard of living. It can also be a “passport” to other benefits – from Cold Weather Payments to Warm Home Discounts from energy suppliers.

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There are many reasons people miss out, from a lack of awareness to feeling too proud to accept help. The process can also be confusing – only one in five respondents in our survey described it as “easy”, while most said it was not.

Age Scotland’s Check In Cash Out campaign offers a simple, free way for older people to check if they’re eligible for extra support. So far, our advisors have helped older people claim more than £600,000 this year – but we know this is just the tip of the iceberg. We’re encouraging everyone to check whether they or an older relative or friend might be missing out by calling 0800 12 44 222.

But of course, this alone won’t solve the wider problem. Pensioner poverty should have no place in 21st century Scotland. We need urgent action to ensure that everyone can afford a decent standard of living in later life.

Brian Sloan, Age Scotland Chief Executive.

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