What are the impacts?

Can a cold home be a killer?

I'm starting worry about my grandmother. I don't get to over to visit her often and it always takes some planning. So she always has everything perfect when I arrive. Tea and biscuits ready. The house spotless. And it seems warm and comfortable. But she rubs her hands and knees a lot while we talk. And when I went to the bathroom, I saw a knitted cap on her pillow. Why would she put that there?

Seniors present unique challenges when it comes to fuel poverty. One of the biggest is that many live alone and no one really knows how they pass their time or how well they are managing their day-to-day affairs. When visitors do come, many will go to great lengths to present the picture that all is well. After all, these are the people who devoted much of their time, energy and resources to caring for their families; they don't want to now be seen as unable to take care of themselves.    

But a recent UK study found that 90% of pensioners surveyed worried about paying energy bills, and more than 50% admitted to having turned off the heat – even though they felt cold – to save money.

Elderly people are particularly vulnerable to negative health impacts associated with fuel poverty, in part because being cold can make existing conditions such as arthritis or respiratory problems more severe. People with chronic heart conditions are also at greater risk, as being cold causes blood to get 'thicker' and flow more slowly. Chronic cold can be the 'tipping point' between a condition being manageable and dangerous.

Additionally, like children, many elderly people lose weight and have very little body fat to act as insulation. If they leave the heat off for extended periods, for example overnight, and the indoor temperature drops to 10oC or lower, even for two hours, the risk of hypothermia becomes quite high.

Statistics collected over many decades show that more elderly people die in winter months than in warmer seasons – a phenomenon known as 'excess winter deaths'. More recently, health experts have been trying to analyse how often cold homes are a significant contributing factor to high winter mortality rates from pre-existing conditions that affect the heart, circulation and breathing.