Almost two thirds of people aged 65 and older are worried about paying their energy bills this winter, it has emerged.
The worrying statistic means that a quarter of those concerned are now cutting back on food, or skipping meals altogether, to avoid footing the excessive bills.
The study also found that already 31 per cent of those who struggled with their bills last winter are succumbing to stress, while one in seven have suffered ill health due to cold or damp housing.
Across Britain alone people in fuel poverty are looking at bills totalling £1.05billion above what they can afford, a figure which has risen substantially from £606 million in 2003.
Charities are now claiming as a result the “fuel poverty gap” is now growing, with on average the shortfall between energy bills and what people can afford totalling £438.
The survey, conducted by charity Turn2us, found that more than a fifth of over 65s were forced to turn to their credit cards to help cover their bills.
But, the charity said, many are unaware of other financial support available to them, helping to lessen the burden they may be facing.
The study found a huge 46 per cent are not aware help exists, and in addition 66 per cent would not consider checking their welfare benefits entitlement if struggling with their energy costs.
And only 11 per cent would contemplate checking for support in the form of charitable grants.
No option but to borrow
Alison Taylor, director of the charity, said: “With the cost of living steadily increasing, people feel like they have no option but to borrow money and cut back on essentials to cover costs.
“Our research shows that more needs to be done to help raise awareness of the financial support and help available to manage energy bills.”
As a result Turn2us has released a new campaign, called ‘Mind the Gap’, focusing on the growing gap between household incomes and the cost of energy bills.
It also aims to highlight the support available to those struggling with their energy bills.
It uses six steps to help people increase their household income and manage their energy costs.
The steps include checking welfare benefits entitlement, searching for grants and schemes to help with bills, getting help to improve energy efficiency and checking energy tariffs.
The case of Philip, from Swansea, shows how vital the work of charities is in plugging the gap between bills and income.
The father-of-four was forced to take early retirement from work due to poor health and was concerned about how his family would cope on his wife’s part-time wages as a nursery nurse.
He approached the Citizen’s Advice Bureau for assistance and was advised to apply for Disability Living Allowance (now replaced by Personal Independence Payment) to help support him and his family.
Although this payment helped them buy the essentials, the family still found that they did not have enough money to deal with emergencies and larger household bills.
Unfortunately, as well as an inefficient 10 year old boiler, an outbuilding attached to the house was causing damp and making the house cold – which increase their heating bills dramatically.
Eventually, after building up energy bill arrears, Philip decided to call Turn2us to see if he might be eligible for any grants to help with his debts.
Turn2us put Philip in contact with The Warm Front, a charity that improves the heating and insulation of people’s homes – which has since been replaced by a variety of other charitable organisations.
The charity liaised directly with the family’s gas and electricity provider and not only did they succeed in fully clearing their gas and electricity bill, they also cleared a year’s worth of arrears too.
Alison added: “Turn2us has launched its winter fuel poverty campaign with the news that more people are worried about finding the money to pay for their energy bills.
“With our ‘Mind the Gap’ campaign we have brought together a number of free Turn2us tools and information all in one place to help people in financial need maximise their income and manage their energy costs.”
Visit www.turn2us.org.uk/fuelpoverty or call 0808 802 2000 (8am-8pm Monday-Friday)