Would you rather have heat, or eat? This is a dilemma that is becoming more and more common for the elderly people of Ireland. For years they have tried to draw attention to their plight, but soon, some voices of Ireland’s elderly population will be sharply silenced.
As the cold weather sets in, elderly representative group Age Action have launched a standard series of warnings for people to be good neighbours and check in on elderly friends or relatives. The group advise elderly people to stock up on canned foods, in case they are housebound for a while if the weather becomes extreme.
Older people are also encouraged to ring any housebound friends and to raise an alarm if there is no answer. But come January, such a service will be impossible with the abolition of the telephone allowance, according to Eamon Timmons of Age Action. Old people will be even more at risk to the dangers of the cold as new expenses enhance their struggles to afford fuel in the wintertime.
Fuel poverty in Ireland is a killer, according to Timmons. Older people do not often die directly from hypothermia, but from other cold-related illnesses. A decrease in temperatures leads to an increase in respiratory and cardio-vascular complications and deaths among old people.
A dangerous strategy adopted by some older people is the act of cutting back on food so that they can afford fuel.
Anne Dempsey, of the Senior Helpline telephone service for the elderly, said she often receives calls communicating the message: “I either don’t heat or I don’t eat.” One caller has told Dempsey that she goes to bed at 7pm every night as she cannot afford to heat her home and her bed is the only place that she can stay warm.
Worryingly, a major problem identified by Age Action is people becoming de-sensitised to the cold. The group advise people to keep their main living room at 21°C, and 18°C in the other rooms. At 12°C, the blood thickens, and there is an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. When advertised, these temperature guidelines are often met with the same response: “I just can’t afford it.”
The fuel allowance that is available for up to 410,000 low-income Irish households was reduced gradually over the years of austerity budgets. Simultaneously, gas prices rose.
To keep warm, elderly senior helpline volunteer and pensioner, Mary Angela, spends all of her time in her kitchen where she has a solid fuel room heater. “My kitchen is my living room, it’s my everything. It’s the warmest place in the house and I spend my whole winter in it.”
Mary Angela relies on her electric blanket to stay warm at night-time, but otherwise, the rest of her rooms are left unheated. She fears getting a cold, but often cannot justify putting on her electric heater to subsidise the fuel stove which she keeps on a very low heat. Her bedroom, she says, is like going into a fridge.
Mary Angela lives a life of economising and frugality practices. She boils her kettle in the morning and stores the water in a pump flask for tea throughout the day. She uses a double steamer to cook food, and buys in bulk with the intention of freezing meals. “I have everything cut down as low as I can.”
Mary Angela dispenses her thrifty tips to callers who ring the Seniors helpline with money problems. Calls are on the rise, she said: “People need someone to talk to, they’re so worried over everything, all they want to do is talk to somebody.”
Careful though she may be, Mary Angela is constantly dipping into her savings. “I just don’t know what’s going to happen when it’s all gone, I’m just hoping that I win the lotto,” she said.
Mary Angela relies on the telephone allowance to facilitate her pendant alarm. With severe back problems and various disablements, she is at risk of falling. She makes sure that the alarm is always wrapped around her wrist so that she can call for help if needed.
Working with the Senior Helpline, Mary Angela is concerned with the amount of people who say that are willing to forgo their landline telephones in January, not realising the link with the pendant alarms. “They don’t realise the dangers that they are leaving themselves in,” she said.
Most pendant alarms operate from a landline, and to switch to a mobile phone-compatible unit could cost up to €100, Timmins said. Such an expense would eat into another budget of a struggling elderly person, and it could be food, fuel, or medication.
A Seniors Alert grant scheme exists for the personal alarms, but the amount provided has not been changed to facilitate the costs of changing to a mobile-unit, according to a spokesperson for the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.
There is a further difficulty of older people cutting off their landline telephones and switching to mobile phones.
Community development group Muintir na Tire say that over a quarter of its callers would describe their mobile phone coverage as poor. Mary Angela, who lives in a rural area, said that she can often go through a day without any phone coverage at all. For her safety, a mobile alarm unit would more than likely be useless.
Third Age, an Irish elderly people advocacy group, had over 28,000 calls to its confidential Senior helpline service last year. Loneliness and isolation underpins a lot of the calls. During the “big freeze” winters in recent years, older people rang to express their sheer misery over being cold, Dempsey said.
At the 2012 Fine Gael Ard Fheis, Taoiseach Enda Kenny pledged that by 2016, Ireland would be “the best country in which to grow old with dignity and respect”.
Mary Angela, however, is sceptical: “I wish some of the government that make those rules and regulations would just live for six months like an older person has to live,” she said.
Elderly people and their representative groups rallied and marshalled outside the Dáil following the scrappage of the telephone allowance in October’s Budget proposals. They tried to make as much noise as they could.
In January, however, some of those people may not even have a dial tone.