It’s Cold Homes Week and Age UK is raising awareness of the devastating effects of the cold on older people. In this guest blog post, Alan Maryon-Davis, who is Honorary Professor of Public Health at Kings College London, explains why the issue of cold homes is a massive public health crisis.
Last winter, 61-year-old Lynne contacted Age UK to tell the charity what living in a cold home was like. She said:
“I could only afford to have my heating on in the morning for an hour or so and then at night. So through the day it was horrendous, it was bitterly cold in this house, bitterly cold. It was damp too – all my clothes were damp, even in the wardrobe.”
Lynne has health problems including rheumatoid arthritis, a nodule on her lung and depression. She is well aware that this means she needs to keep warm, but she struggles to afford it.
“In the winter you put £25 a week on your gas, £20 a week for your electric and that’s £45 gone. That’s without everything else. We don’t have luxuries in this house. My priority is to try to keep some warmth in.”
Why is Lynne’s story so shockingly familiar? Why are so many older people forced to endure such cold, damp living conditions, winter after winter?
1 OLDER PERSON IN 20 LIVING IN FUEL POVERTY
It’s estimated that one older person in 20 is living in ‘fuel poverty,’ struggling to afford the cost of keeping warm. And a high proportion of them have ailments, like Lynne with her arthritis and depression, which are aggravated by the cold.
At this time of year our hospitals are full of older patients who have life-threatening illnesses triggered or made worse by cold, damp surroundings – conditions like heart attacks, strokes, pneumonia, chronic obstructive airways disease, heart failure and hypothermia.
Sadly many of these patients do not survive. Every seven minutes across the UK yet another older person dies from a condition brought on by cold weather.
It’s a massive public health crisis. Cold homes kill more people across the UK than road accidents, alcohol or drug abuse. Scandinavian countries have much harsher winters than ours, and yet their seasonal mortality rate is far lower.
A COORDINATED AND COMPREHENSIVE APPROACH IS NEEDED
There’s clearly something we as a nation and as a society are not doing right. We need a much more coordinated and comprehensive approach combining lower energy prices, more financial support for fuel-poor people and a fairer scheme for tackling poorly insulated, draughty homes.
That’s why I support Age UK’s campaign for warm homes. Not only will more warm homes alleviate the suffering of thousands of older people as well as reduce the £1.36 billion per year burden on the NHS and social services, but will also boost jobs in the energy efficiency business and lower the nation’s carbon footprint.
In the meantime, we can all help by keeping an eye on older members of our family, friends or neighbours who might be at risk when the temperature plummets.
Perhaps we can help them with the shopping, getting any necessary medical attention or with claiming for benefits and allowances. But especially we should do what we can to make sure they are as comfortably warm as possible.
Find out more about Age UK’s campaign for warm homes and get involved in Cold Homes Week by visiting the Age UK website.