Winter often brings a number of challenges for older people and as we continue to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic and the emergence of the Omicron variant, this winter is likely to be more difficult than most.
As a group of organisations working on behalf of older people, we want to ensure that older people’s needs are considered and not forgotten as decisions are made over the coming weeks and months to respond to the pandemic.
This statement outlines these areas of concern across the UK and seeks to provide solutions to enable national, devolved and local governments to take the action necessary to support older people through this most challenging of winters.
Energy Prices and Fuel Poverty
Many thousands of older people across the UK live in consistent fuel poverty. Whilst the Winter Fuel Payment, Cold Weather Payment and other entitlements do go some way to help meet the cost of energy, the increases that we have seen in the price of gas over the last few months and the cost implications for customers of energy companies that have gone out of business, mean that many older people are facing considerably higher fuel bills than they are used to.
The emergence of the Omicron variant means that many of the social activities that older people would normally enjoy at this time of year are likely to be cancelled and they will be spending more time at home, further increasing their need to heat their homes for longer. Without further support, many older people’s health and well-being will deteriorate and this will lead to further demand for health and social care services.
National and devolved governments should increase the level of financial support available to older people, particularly those living on the lowest incomes, to ensure that keeping your home safe and warm is more affordable. There is a fear that many older people will choose to limit their use of heating or make sacrifices in other areas of their lives, such as eating less food, in order to get by financially.
Access to Food
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, older people were given priority access to food delivery slots and communities throughout the UK pulled together to support friends and neighbours to access food and medicines. Many of these support mechanisms have fallen away as the pandemic situation improved but the risks posed by the Omicron variant mean that many older people may feel uncomfortable going into supermarkets or using busy public transport services to access them.
There is a duty on us all to look out for older friends, neighbours and relatives to ensure that they have the food and medicines that they need to stay well over the winter, and governments at all levels should be making a call to action to communities across the UK to step up and support those in need.
If supermarket delivery slots or the supply of food do become limited again, governments should look at returning to arrangements with supermarkets to ensure that older people, and other vulnerable groups, are prioritised for delivery slots and entry to stores at specified times.
One of the most effective ways to support the most financially vulnerable older people over the winter would be to invest in campaigns to increase the level of take-up of Pension Credit for those that are eligible, which currently sits at only 60%. This must be accompanied by commitments to look at further action that can be taken in the longer-term to understand why take-up remains so low and explore the introduction of auto-enrolment.
Northern Ireland’s ‘Make the Call’ campaign has been successful in improving the take-up of Pension Credit and other financial entitlements, and other governments should look at how similar schemes could be implemented throughout the UK. In order to make a difference immediately, these campaigns would need to roll out quickly and applications fast tracked to put money directly into the pockets of some of the most vulnerable older people across the UK.
Tackling Loneliness and Isolation
Winter can often bring loneliness and social isolation for many older people, especially those living alone or without family close by. There is help and support available for people experiencing loneliness and isolation, such as befriending helplines. Governments should look at investing in widening the availability of these services and promoting their existence to older people through advertising and utilising their opportunities to speak directly to the public to raise awareness of this support.
This will also be a challenging and anxious time for older people living in care homes, and their loved ones, who will be concerned about whether visitors will be able to continue to enter care homes and whether residents are supported to leave for visits out. Governments should ensure that safe visits can continue and that blanket bans on visiting and visits out are not put in place in care homes.
Access to Health and Social Care Services
The Covid-19 vaccine booster campaign and the continuing rise in the number of Covid-19 cases will be placing increasing pressure on our health and care services. There have already been announcements that planned and routine treatments will be postponed. It is crucial that these are caught up with as quickly as possible to minimise the impact on older people’s health and well-being and that more is done to support older people while they wait for surgery.
Many older people will also need to continue to access social care support, in the community and in residential care, including older people ready to leave hospital and return home. We understand the pressures currently facing the social care workforce and it is essential that governments utilise all available resources to retain and recruit staff into the sector.
Pressure can be relieved on both health and social care services if investments are made in local community and voluntary services that support older people’s physical and mental health, preventing them from needing to access more costly health and care interventions. Governments and health authorities should seek to make investments in these services to support older people to stay safe and well at home.
Heléna Herklots: Older People’s Commissioner for Wales
Deborah Alsina: Chief Executive, Independent Age
Eddie Lynch: Commissioner for Older People in Northern Ireland
Caroline Abrahams: Charity Director, Age UK
Victoria Lloyd: Chief Executive Age Cymru
Donald Macaskill: Chief Executive Scottish Care
Linda Robinson: Chief Executive Age Northern Ireland
Brian Sloan: Chief Executive Age Scotland