Britain's elderly struggle to cope on the edge of poverty

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The Independent Online
KATHLEEN GOVINDA has been pacing, deep in thought, in front of the chilled meats counter for five minutes. Finally - and triumphantly - she brandishes a packet of chicken and puts it in her trolley. She has managed to find a piece on special offer at pounds 2.59 rather than the pounds 2.99 she was preparing to pay.

Some time later, after a meticulous search of Sainsbury's, she has managed to get her half-weekly shopping bill down to pounds 14.12 by careful choice of own-brands, special deals and cheap foods.

Ask her the price of a packet of biscuits and she will immediately respond. "They're pounds 1.49 - the cheapest ones. I'd love to buy some sweets. Quality Street is my favourite but again they are too expensive."

Kathleen is one of the millions of elderly people in Britain struggling to cope on the edge of poverty in old age. The Independent's Christmas appeal aims to raise funds for the organisations dedicated to helping old people: Age Concern, Action on Elder Abuse and St Christopher's Hospice.

Kathleen, 74, is continually juggling money - she has to live on a basic state pension which, topped up by income support,works out at pounds 69.75 a week. Because she is on income support, her council housing rent is paid for. But she still has to pay all her bills, including pounds 8.31 a week on water rates and pounds 6 a week towards a telephone helpline which will summon an ambulance if she falls ill. She has used it twice already.

Every fortnight she pays pounds 4 to a home-help as well.

Keeping the house warm is also a problem, but as one of the poorest pensioners she has received a pounds 50 "cold weather" payment which, she says, was "a great relief. That will pay the bills. I didn't expect it so soon and I feel very lucky." She also spends her days at the Sotheby Mews Centre, an Age Concern project, which helps cutthe heating bills.

Kathleen, originally from South Africa, worked hard as a shop assistant and then a machinist in a factory. Neither employer offered an occupational pension, which would boost her income now.

With a heart condition and arthritis, Kathleen frequently has hospital appointments. This is fine in the middle of the day when she can use her bus pass, but all too often the appointments are scheduled for 8am so she has to pay pounds 5 for a minicab to take her.

Her food is her main outgoing and it is extremely frugal - cereal in the morning, then she pays pounds 1.55 for a "filling" meal at Sotheby Mews.

In the evening she will make herself a sandwich or have a piece of toast. "I do like vegetables and I eat a lot of those. I don't eat meat that much but I like chicken and fish at the weekend.

"I am very fond of prawns but they are too expensive to buy. I look for what's on special offer or deals where if you buy one you get one free."

The centre organises a weekly trip to the supermarket because the more expensive prices in local shops are beyond the reach of most pensioners.

Her entertainment is the day centre and her television at home. Her eyes are too bad for her to spend money on newspapers, books or magazines.

"I can't afford to go to the cinema. I prefer to stay in and watch Coronation Street. Sometimes there is a good film on, but you can't sit up waiting for them all night.

"I always watch the news as well. I like to know what is going on in the world.

"I buy essentials, I don't buy luxuries," she says. "Sometimes I feel like having a little treat but it's always too expensive. It is a bit of a struggle. I do my best to manage. But I always have to work out how much exactly I'm going to spend and stick to it. It's always a big worry."

Her one treat at Christmas is to buy herself a pair of good sensible shoes that will last her until the next Christmas.

"I've just got to think about what I really need rather than what I want," she says wistfully. "There isn't money for things like presents."