Kate Hughes: Why it's so vital to keep the home fires burning

With winter approaching the cost of staying warm can mean life or death for the elderly

People seem to be dropping dead around me at the moment. Not in any comic sense, just literally crumpling. First it was the little old lady in the queue at the coffee shop. One minute she was there, the next she just wasn't. Then a woman was run over in the street yesterday. Whipped up in an air ambulance, I only realised she hadn't made it when a bouquet appeared on a nearby railing this morning.

I guess there wasn't anything that unusual about either event – happens every day – but it gets you thinking about the stuff that actually matters doesn't it? And clearly things like securing the best possible mortgage deal or the market-leading savings rate don't immediately spring to mind. Seeing as this column is usually reserved, rightly, for highlighting financial injustice or flagging up unseen money risks, it's may be all a bit personal.

But money is deeply personal. It is an unspoken definition of our successes and failures. It regularly sets the limits for our exploration of the world, can determine when, or if, we have children and often fundamentally affects our state of mind. Especially when there isn't any. And that's the point that the personally important becomes the financially important and financial difficulty becomes so personal it's literally life threatening.

It's way down at the bottom of the pile of things for our attention, somewhere underneath the PPI scandal, the state of the housing market, and whether or not criminals have been stashing cash in tax havens, but nowhere is this relationship between money, life and death thrown into starker relief than when it comes to poverty among the elderly.

As we approach another winter, the full effects of fuel poverty in particular are kicking in. With an estimated six million households in the UK facing bills that account for at least 10 per cent of income, its tough enough if you're relatively healthy and mobile. But figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 25,000 older people die due to the extreme cold each winter in the UK, a far higher number than in other, colder European countries.

And yet the Warm Front scheme, which offers government-funded grants of up to £3,500 (or more for those with no mains gas) for low- income homeowners and private tenants in England, has dramatically underspent its budget. Currently being phased out, there is a finite amount of time to get an application in before the money runs dry. More information is available from Citizens Advice, Age UK, and direct.gov.uk.

But there are other channels that can help. Energy suppliers provide assistance for some older customers such as the Warm Homes Discount scheme, which could be worth £130 for those on certain benefits.

Plus, of course, there's the winter fuel allowance that gives everyone born on or before 5 July 1951 an annual payment of between £100 and £300 tax free to help pay heating bills, with an extra £25 more if it gets really cold for a week or more. It's usually paid automatically if you get the state pension, but the system doesn't exactly work perfectly and claims for the payment can be made via the Directgov website if you think you're eligible.

The scheme has been criticised for being a blanket payment to all older Brits regardless of personal wealth, and charities, financial services companies and community groups are now revving up to launch this year's Surviving Winter campaign to "redistribute" the allowance. The brainchild of a group of Somerset pensioners who didn't feel they needed theirs, the campaign raised more than £2.5m last winter.

For some people, the extra funds provided access to a regular lunch club which provided warmth, company and a hot meal. For others, it provided crucial changes to their homes or help with fuel bills.

There's no doubt it's needed. While dropping dead in a coffee shop or on the street may not be ideal, freezing to death for fear of the cost of it all must be so much worse. This year, with the average fuel bill set to increase to £1,334 a year by this time next month, according to uSwitch.com figures, the situation can only get worse.

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