The anxiety of age: the cost of living crisis and older age

Last week I wrote in my blog about the potentially devastating impact of energy cost increases on the care home and homecare sector in Scotland. In response to that several people got in touch to say that there was a dimension of the cost of living and energy increases that was rarely talked about in the mainstream media – namely the impact on older people who live on their own and on their health and wellbeing.

One correspondent put it fairly bluntly when she wrote:

“I feel as if what is happening around me is something over which I have no control. I am on a fixed pension which was a struggle at the best of times but allowed me if I saved to get some things for the grandkids. Now I am either going to have to cut off the heating for most of the winter or not be able to give my grandchildren what I want to. I am going to have to choose between love and heat.”

Despite my attempt to reassure and suggest what I think is a priority and which her grandchildren would consider a priority – i.e., to heat and be warm – I am ashamed that in 2022 an older woman who has given so much to her community and society, and to her family should be having to contemplate making such a decision.

But her choice describes the situation for countless thousands across Scotland today. Unlike those in work who can argue for an increase in their salaries to match the spiralling inflationary costs; or who can potentially work more in order to bridge the gaps – the vast majority of older Scots are on fixed incomes and pensions which at the moment are restricted. They are in a very real and costly Catch 22. The consequences of some of the choices they are making now and will make in the autumn and winter are devastating and, in some instances, might be deadly.

Professor Linda Bauld,  a leading academic at Edinburgh University and who has become a familiar face during Covid, yesterday appeared in the Herald saying that the steep increases in prices could spark a public health emergency with a rise in deaths.

She is quoted saying:

“We know from history that when people lack access to basic resources including energy and food there are health implications… Cold, damp housing exacerbates respiratory conditions for adults and children and results in worsening of symptoms for a range of chronic conditions.

“Not having enough money for transport means people can’t travel to appointments with health services or to collect prescriptions.”

There is nothing new in this reality, nothing new in the fact that older people are more vulnerable to winter deaths because of rising respiratory conditions; nothing new in the fact that more heart attacks occur after a cold spell and nothing new in the poverty faced by older Scots. What does not seem to be new is any political response regardless of where that might come from.

That is not to dismiss some of the interventions which have occurred, and I would encourage anyone who knows any older person to be aware that we are in the last week of being able to apply for additional assistance. People living on a low State Pension should check their eligibility for Pension Credit and apply ahead of next week’s cut off point on Thursday as it could mean an extra £650 of financial support which could help with rising energy bills. There are more details available from Age Scotland and others. But sadly, I suspect all the interventions to date will not prevent the major health emergency we are about to face as a whole society – unless action is taken  and all this said in a week evidencing yet more massive energy producer profits.

In an earlier study from Age UK it was stated that 220,000 older households in Scotland will have insufficient income to cover their essential spending this year. They estimate that the poorest older households in Scotland will need to drastically up the percentage of their net income spent on essential goods and services from 70% in 2021-22 to 87% in 2022-23 due to higher costs of living.

Every day we seem to be hearing yet more negative news with little action or comment from both the Scottish and UK Governments. It is one thing to respond to an emergency and have fault lines found in the response, it is quite another to walk into a nightmare fully awake and to fail to take action which could save lives.

Therefore, it is not only our care homes and homecare services which risk collapse and which will result in inevitable deaths in the coming weeks and months, but people at home on their own over the next few months who will be asked to make life and death decisions, and for many the wrong choice will inevitably follow, and for countless others there will be no choice at all.

Donald Macaskill