Yesterday I visited Age Concern’s Chelmsford day centre to discover how real pensioners live. As one of the only people there under 80, and a phoney pensioner at that, I felt conspicuous. And as if confirming this, one elderly lady looked disapprovingly at me and I could have sworn muttered to her neighbour, “I hope she hasn’t come here to cadge a cheap cup of tea." Maybe it was my guilty imagination, but I braved it out and was directed to some tables where fifty pensioners were awaiting lunch.
I ended up spending much of my lunchtime with five ladies: Ivy, Mary, Iris, Grace and Rose. When I told them of my experiment, they laughed at me. “How can you really do it unless you’re a real pensioner?” Mary pointed out.
“People think all pensioners are rich,” complained Ivy. “They think we get everything for nothing.” In fact, the pension experience is different for everybody. Some people I spoke to had more money than others, depending on their benefits, savings or whether they have an occupational pension. Another person I spoke to later admitted quietly that they were fairly well off, with £600 a week coming in, but this was unusual.
“When things go wrong in the house [and you have to pay for repairs], that’s when it becomes difficult,” explains Iris.
“Everything seems to go wrong at once,” said Rose.
When I asked whether they put money away to pay for these occasions, Iris exclaimed, “How can you?!”
“The state pension isn’t enough,” said Ivy. “Everything keeps going up. It won’t cover the heating, the gas and electric. We’re all in our eighties and you have to keep the heating on otherwise the house is cold.”
Loneliness is another major issue. “I lost my husband 10 years ago,” says Rose. “It does get lonely. But you get used to it. We’re all in the same boat.” Luckily Rose’s two children live nearby and visit regularly.
Esme, another lady, tells me that having pets, such as her cat, helps combat loneliness.
And although Eric lives with his daughter she works so he is on his own during the day and attends the day centre daily because otherwise he suffers from loneliness. But it isn’t cheap. It costs £3 a day to attend the day centre – £15 a week – and some pensioners who aren’t on a direct bus route have to pay to travel there. Freda, who runs the centre, explains that it gets only £3,000 of borough funding each year but she has to employ a chef and kitchen staff to comply with hygiene regulations. Fortunately an investment bank recently donated £7,000 to pay for renovations to the hall, which is also rented out to keep the service afloat.
These pensioners seemed relatively fit. But even they were physically limited in their hobbies. “I used to do gardening but I can’t now,” explains Rose. “I’m too frightened of falling down and at our age, when you fall down you can’t get up on your own. My son does the gardening now and I miss it.”
And while I am able to pick and choose where I shop, everyone I spoke to relied on family or neighbours to do their food shopping because they can’t carry it themselves and no longer drive. “It’s carrying the shopping that’s the problem,” explains Rose. “You have to have a trolley and you don’t get bus conductors anymore to help you get it on and off the bus.”
Finding clothes can also be a problem – particularly underwear and blouses. Bon Marché and markets were popular and cheap places to shop. The pensioners are also eagerly anticipating new travel regulations which will allow them to travel around the UK for free on buses, not just around Essex.
But by far the most popular activity at the centre was bingo. 50p a go, it was virtually a religion. And when the afternoon session got underway, it was clear my new pensioner friends were deaf to any other queries I had! But I felt they’d really given a tiny glimpse into the life of a genuine pensioner.