Cold comfort

It’s going to be a cold winter. Or at least that’s what I’ve read in the papers – based on varying predictions to do with cold wind from Siberia or lots of berries on holly trees. Or maybe just memories of last winter.

Age UK campaigners outside Parliament for Spread the Warmth day of action

Whether those dire predictions come true or not, I’m going to make another which will sadly almost certainly come true: tens of thousands of older people will die this winter. Those deaths aren’t inevitable. But they’re probably going to happen anyway unless we do something about it.

Figures from the Office of National Statistics released this morning showed 23,100 excess winter deaths of people aged 65 and over occurred in England and Wales last winter.  This rather clinical phrase refers to the number of extra deaths over the four winter months (December to March) minus the average of non-winter deaths (from April to July of this year and August to November of last year). The figure averages about 30,000 deaths every winter.

Last year’s figure (reflecting deaths in the previous winter 08-09) reached record levels – 36,700 in England and Wales, or more than 300 a day. Older people are the most likely to be affected – with the majority of deaths in people over the age of 75.

This is partly because older people may have the underlying health problems – particularly heart and circulation problems – which make them vulnerable. But also they are more likely to be living in poorly heated housing.

Winters don’t have to be particularly cold to have an impact. Figures from the Chief Medical Officer’s Report 2009 show that once the outside temperature falls below 18 degrees Celsius (and in this country that means from around October onwards) every further one degree decrease in temperature results in 8,000 additional winter deaths.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Other, much colder countries have death rates which are significantly lower than the UK. Finland, for example, has an excess winter death rate around half of that of the UK.

This morning, to coincide with the release of last winter’s death figures, campaigners across the country will be staging a ‘day of action’ to highlight Age UK’s call for a co-ordinated plan for winter. There are so many things that can be done to bring down the numbers of people dying each winter.

Energy companies could do more to improve efficiency, help older people insulate their homes and make sure social tariffs are available to the people who really need them. Supermarkets could offer free delivery of groceries ordered over the phone during periods of cold. Local authorities could work with health professionals to systematically identify and support vulnerable people. They could also coordinate the efforts of local businesses and community groups. And national government could play the vital coordinating role to ensure that older people everywhere are protected from the cold.

Age UK’s local partners are already playing their part: last winter there were numerous examples of local projects which brought warmth and neighbourliness to older people through the coldest weather.

Through our winter campaign Spread the Warmth, we are raising awareness of this issue. Let’s hope we are listened to.

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