‘I feel abandoned by the state’: UK pensioners on the cost of living crisis

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UK inflation is running at 9% in May, driven by sharp rises in the price of gas and electricity, food and transport costs. Among the groups hardest hit by the rising cost of living are pensioners, who are often on a fixed income and tend to spend more on home energy bills than other households.

In April the state pension went up by 3.1%. The average energy bill of just under £2,000 is 20% of the £9,627 a year paid through the new state pension.

Becky O’Connor, the head of pensions and savings at the website interactive investor, said: “It is asking the impossible to expect people on low, fixed incomes, including the UK’s more than 11 million pensioners, to shoulder such [price] increases. A high proportion of the UK’s 66 and over population are dependent on the state pension alone.”

We heard from Guardian readers who are trying to keep up with rising costs.

‘You worry about putting the oven on’

View image in fullscreenSuzanna. Photograph: Suzanna/Guardian Community

Suzanna, a retired teacher from London, has changed what she eats to help reduce her spending. “The cost of food means I buy less and have a basic diet,” she says. “I don’t [use the oven], because you worry about how much energy does the oven use. I normally eat very healthily. I’m going round looking at things that maybe I can just stick in the microwave because they’re cheaper. Even boiling vegetables, it takes quite a long time.”

The 78-year-old lives in a block of flats for older people, but has had to cut down on socialising because of the cost, leaving her feeling isolated. “We’ve had the pandemic, and hardly anyone ever came out their room. I didn’t see anybody for weeks because a lot of elderly people are still very anxious. And now this. I moved just as the pandemic struck. My old friends are starting to say they’d like to come, but that means going out, eating, going to something.”

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Suzanna has a teacher’s and a state pension, but says they have not risen enough over the last decade to keep up with her costs. “Even though I had two pensions, it wasn’t a vast amount of money,” she says. She is worried about inflation getting worse. “Even if you can manage at the moment, the anxiety of older people will be all about next winter, or when everything goes up more.”

‘I do not have enough to last the month’

Ken Taylor. Photograph: Ken Taylor/Guardian Community

In the last three months, Ken Taylor, 72, a retired salesperson from Sherburn in Elmet, North Yorkshire, has begun keeping a list of everything he spends. “I’ve been budgeting for every penny,” he says. “I’ve got a section for the house, I’ve got a section for food, the car, food for the dog, so I can see where the money’s going. And it does go, just about all of it, every month.”

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His monthly income from a state pension and a small work pension is £1,188, and his outgoings for essentials are £1,096, leaving £92 for any additional expenses. “It will not be long before I do not have enough to last the month,” he says. “I dread to think where I’ll be in six months’ time, because by then I’ll be chipping away into my savings. Because of energy costs, which we know already are going to ramp up in October, and food costs, which are going up all the time – and of course fuel prices are another burden.”

Taylor uses his car for his own mobility and to visit his children, and is also part of a voluntary group taking people to hospital, so there are people in the community who depend on his ability to keep it on the road. “Because we’re in a rural area, people can’t afford taxis to go to hospital, but we take them [for free],” he says. “I’d like to see more support, not just for pensioners, for families as well. I don’t agree with this thing about people just getting by. It’s not good enough. People should be having a good life. We’re a very rich country.”

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‘We’ve converted our sitting room into a bedroom’

Janet, 66, a retired teacher, lives in rural Wales with her husband, John, 65, a retired civil servant. The couple are trying to make energy savings where they can. “We have switched off everything electric except the lights, fridge, freezer, washing machine and TV,” she says. “I’ve gone back to using an old oil-fired Aga that stood in the corner for years because it heats the house and it dries my washing.”

The high price of heating oil is a major concern. The couple used to be able to fill their oil tank for £600, but it now costs them £535 to fill just to halfway. “The tank will be empty by next winter,” she says.

John has had four heart attacks and is now suffering from the aftermath of a Covid infection, meaning the house needs to be kept warm. “We’ve closed off the upstairs of the house,” says Janet. “We’ve converted our sitting room into a bedroom. So we live downstairs. I’ve put a curtain over the top of the stairs, which is very thick. And we just don’t use the upstairs of the house.”

Janet was one of millions of women affected by a rise in the state pension age. She retired at 60 with what she thought would be enough savings to see them through, but says they are now “absolutely stacked up with loans and credit cards”. Janet does now receive the state pension, but because of that she no longer qualifies for a carer’s allowance, which used to bring in £68 a week. “We’re working people,” she says. “We’ve worked all our lives and we’ve enjoyed doing it, because we felt we were doing a good job, a beneficial job. I just feel so abandoned by the state.”

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‘What is going to happen when the heating goes on?’

View image in fullscreenAdrienne Ayres. Photograph: Adrienne/Guardian Community

Adrienne Ayres, 69, retired from mental health social work in 2014. “I now have hardly any savings,” she says. “When you retire, the things [money coming in] can be very small. So I do things like selling clothes on eBay. Things like that pick up a few quid, but if you can have an extra tenner in your hand that stops you taking it out of the bank.”

Ayres lives alone and says she is very anxious about rising costs. “I shop economically but the cost of living has risen way beyond my pension,” she says. “Food particularly. I used to be able to keep it down to £50 [a week]. But now if I’m not careful I get up to £80. So I’ve seen £30 [extra] going on a food bill very easily in the last few months.” She has also seen her monthly energy costs rise by £26 a month over the last year. “I’m barely cooking,” she says. “And yet it’s gone up that amount, so what is going to happen when the heating goes on?”

Though Ayres owns her own home, she is worried about the future. “I’m a lot better off than many women my age but the coming decade, the 70s, is a challenge,” she says. “When I first trained as a social worker I saw elderly people living in abject poverty, I saw horrid care homes smelling of urine. I imagined that by the time I retired we would have improved how we cared for older people. That’s the measure of a civilised society, isn’t it?”

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