One in five pensioners has had to cut back on everyday essentials such as food and heating because of the rising cost of living, a study by Age UK has revealed.The survey of 1,250 over-60s found that inflation and rising energy costs are causing significant hardship, with nearly half of pensioners (47%) saying they are "just getting by" and one in 10 admitting they are "really struggling".
A fifth of pensioners say they are now going out less, while one in five of those questioned have had to cut back on their heating over the winter to make ends meet. Age UK estimates that 1.8 million pensioners are living in poverty and many more are living close to the breadline.The majority of pensioners on low and middle incomes say they spend the bulk of their budgets on food and have been hit hard by inflation. The cost of the average weekly shop rose by 6.4% last year, and more than a third of those surveyed said they now buy less food or cheaper brands to compensate.
The charity claims a rise in energy costs of 4.2% in the past year, exacerbated by the government's decision to allow the £50-£100 winter fuel allowance top-up to expire, is "particularly worrying" given data from the Office for National Statistics which shows around 25,000 extra older people have died during the last five winters.
Age UK also highlighted the fact that, despite increasing pressure on pensioners' household budgets, only 22% claim their full benefit entitlements, with about £5.4bn going unclaimed each year because people do not realise what help is available.Slightly less than 2 million older people are also missing out on council tax subsidies, which could boost their annual incomes by around £728, and up to 350,000 older people are failing to claim housing benefit.
Michelle Mitchell, director of Age UK, said: "At a time when so many people are struggling financially it is unacceptable that vital benefits are failing to reach some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. This money could make a huge difference to people's quality of life.
"Ultimately, the best way to ensure that people receive the benefits they are entitled to is for them to be paid automatically. But in the meantime the evidence shows that clear, independent information and advice and face-to-face communication are key to improving the take-up of benefits."Age UK's More money in your pocket campaign aims to encourage older people to claim the benefits they are entitled to by launching an online benefits checker.
The charity also says debt is increasingly a problem for the over-60s, with one in 10 pensioners claiming they owe significant amounts of money – up from one in 12 in 2008. The Consumer Credit Counselling Service (CCCS) says that of the 500,000 calls it received last year, about 10% were from people aged over 60, and their average unsecured debt was £24,642.
A spokesperson from the CCCS said: "Older people are finding themselves in debt for a number of reasons – it may be that their pensions and investments are not performing as well as they had anticipated, they may have become ill, or they may have had to help their children."People in general are being squeezed, but older people have less leeway because they are on budgets based on a limited income. In many ways it is harder for people in their 80s because they cannot just go out and get a job.
"We are expecting things to get more difficult over the next few months because both inflation and interest rates have gone up. For people with larger assets, selling their houses or releasing equity could be an option, but we realise that for many older people this can be a difficult emotional decision, especially if that is where they raised their family."
By Carri Ann Taylor for the Guardian