Heat or eat: the crisis of pensioner poverty in the UK

Older people are being hard hit by rising living costs and major reform is needed to protect them.

A report published in June by Age UK revealed that 18% of pensioners are living in poverty in the UK.

Longer life expectancy and greater care requirements are adding to the financial burdens faced by many in later life. Chronic financial disadvantage means more than living on a low income, making it even harder for older people to manage new and unexpected costs, such as unprecedented care needs or rising food and energy bills. Whilst these problems are not unique to the retired, such issues only worsen older people’s sense of vulnerability and present major health challenges too. 

Late last year Age UK announced that one in 10 people over 60 in the UK would be forced to cancel or reduce the care they received due to rising living costs. In April, the Homecare Association estimated that the minimum price for home care in the UK is now £31.52 per hour following rising fuel, food and rent costs. 

The government must set out a clear programme of reform to end poverty in later life. Whilst fewer pensioners are living in poverty than in previous decades, Age UK’s findings show that 2.1 million pensioners were living in poverty in 2021-22, a figure up from the 1.6 million in the first half of the 2010s.

Following Age UK’s findings, tenants, BAME pensioners, older pensioners and women (especially older single women) are the most vulnerable to poverty. In total, 29% of Asian or British Asian pensioners, and 25% of Black or Black British pensioners live in poverty. Overall, Black people are far less likely to own their homes outright and are more likely to live in overcrowded and unsafe housing

Against this backdrop, the number of older renters in England has risen significantly. Among those who are renting or who have not bought their own home, 37% of private tenants and 36% of social tenants are living in poverty, this contrasts with 13% of older people who own their home outright. As a similar report by the Centre for Ageing Better, a UK based charity focused on improving the life experiences of older people, discovered, fewer than one in 10 homes in England are suitable for older or disabled people to visit or live in.

Jemma Mouland, Deputy Director for Research, Impact and Voice at the Centre for Ageing Better, told Social Care Today that: ‘We want the government to continue its commitment to raising the minimum accessibility standards of all new homes, and for exemptions to these standards to only apply in very limited circumstances.’

She stressed that England needs a government which will improve housing quality, adding that a nationwide programme of ‘one-stop shops’ advising and supporting people in how to achieve safe and efficient energy use, could be part of the solution.

Rising living costs are making a desperate situation worse. Some 45% of Age UK respondents said their continued ability to pay for essential food items was uncertain and many described cutting down on basic goods. A healthy and balanced diet is something many can no longer afford.

Jemma Mouland added: ‘Financial inequalities are widening and drastic differences in life expectancy and healthy life expectancy across the country persist. At age 65 men and women in the least deprived areas have twice as many years free of disability ahead of them as those in the most deprived areas.’

Heating is another concern for many older people. Age UK revealed that almost 60% of those they surveyed were worried about covering their energy bills. Not being able to keep warm particularly impacts older people, who can experience new or worsening health conditions like arthritis as a result of living in cold housing. The consequences of a harsh winter can be felt deep into the summer months, where ever hotter temperatures bring their own health risks.

With fuel costs burning into pensions and possible savings, many older people experience growing isolation, with 29% of respondents having cut back on public and private transport use, leading to more time at home. This is an especially harsh blow following the loneliness and loss many endured during the pandemic. 

Addressing the experiences of older people in the wake of Covid-19, Jemma Mouland also stated that ‘pre-pandemic life expectancy has stalled, and we have since seen an overall decrease in life expectancy. Over the last 15 years, the number of years lived in good health has fallen. 9000 people die in cold homes in England and Wales every year, and half of non-decent homes are headed by someone over the age of 55.’

woman in black shirt standing near window blinds

For the Centre for Ageing Better, a major driver of growing poverty among older people is the rising of the state pension age. Between 2018-2020, the state pension age increased from 65 to 66. At the same time, state pensions and benefits rose by just 3.1% whilst inflation was at 9%.

As Laurence O’Brien, Research Economist at The Institute of Fiscal Studies, explained to Social Care Today: ‘Whereas approximately one in 10 65-year-olds were in absolute income poverty before the state pension rose from 65 to 66, this increased to almost one in four after the reform.’

Both Age UK and the Centre for Ageing better are pushing for better inclusion of older people in the workplace, recognising the importance of older people enjoying stable and satisfactory work in the run up to retirement. With the state pension age set to rise again in upcoming years, this is a situation which will require continued attention.

Crucially, not everyone has equal access to pension support. As Jemma Mouland went on to say, ‘many BAME women do not meet the earnings threshold for automatic enrolment in pension schemes. These factors, combined with lower average hourly earnings and lower entitlements to state pensions, contribute to the average gap in pension income between a female pensioner with a BAME background and a male pensioner with a White background being 51%.’

Calls for the appointment of a Commissioner for Older People and Ageing in England are central to Age UK’s and the Centre for Ageing Better’s recommendations for change. Wales and Northern Ireland both have an Older Person’s Commissioner, and last month Colin Smyth MSP launched efforts to introduce an Older People’s Commissioner for Scotland.

As Jemma Mouland concluded: ‘A Commissioner for Older People and Ageing would address inequalities and give marginalised older people a voice, help government deal with the challenges of an ageing population, have official powers to investigate relevant issues, and challenge age-based discrimination.’

The challenges currently faced by older people across the UK are shared by many of us, regardless of age. With 94% of older people worried about rising living costs, rapid reform is needed to prevent a future of fear and hunger among those who are most at risk. For now, many cannot afford to get older.

Image: Highwaystarz-Photography and Nate Neelson


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