Hands up. I am a coward when it comes to watching unpleasant stuff on TV. In my early years this manifested itself in hiding behind the sofa when the Doctor Who theme music came on. But now I’m no longer scared of the Good Doctor, I have to turn the news off when it shows oppressed refugees or other grim things happening around the globe. It just fills me with such helplessness and depression – utterly useless emotions. And so if it is a choice between some miserable documentary on TV and a mindless comedy, I will cowardly choose Jim Carrey over John Simpson every time. But last night – for once – I forced myself to watch Dispatches: Heat or Eat on Channel Four. If you didn’t see it, it was a shocking investigation into the abject poverty and misery some pensioners find themselves living in – with no holds barred.
Some of the pensioners featured were living in terrible conditions – renting freezing, damp flats with dirty wallpaper peeling off the walls, filthy kitchens – unbelievable squalor. They faced a choice literally between heating or eating – should they eat or put the heating on and risk not being able to pay the bill? One man had signed up to a charity that helped pay his energy bills but still received bullying final demands from his energy company threatening to cut him off.
Many of them were handicapped and spent their days doing nothing but staring at the TV and worrying about bills. Others could barely afford to pay for care after their social services cut funding and put the prices up. Nearly all of them suffered terribly with loneliness. After the first 10 minutes I wanted to turn it off, I felt that depressed, not to mention guilty, but I gritted my teeth and forced myself to watch all of it.
I rang Age Concern this morning to ask them their thoughts about the programme and whether they felt the pensioners featured were typical – hoping desperately that they were aberrations. “As with all things, the programme makers wanted to use quite extreme examples,” says Helen Spinney at the charity, which along with Help the Aged assisted with the programme. “But we know from contact with older people and Age Concerns around the country that this situation is common place. 1.8m pensioners live in poverty and thousands live in fuel poverty. There are an awful lot of pensioners who are struggling.”
Let’s hope the government and social services are shamed into taking action and helping pensioners. It doesn’t seem right that our elderly should be spending the last few years of their lives in these disgusting conditions.
Meanwhile, my own pension experiment has gone ok this week, although I still feel I could get my costs down more. I spent £52 on groceries which I was disappointed by – I plan to investigate my local farm shops and Lidl next week to get my grocery costs down – I’m even considering going vegetarian for a week or two to see if that makes a difference, and then £30 on filling the car with petrol and another £10 seeing friends, making a total of £92. That’s only £12 left from my £104.55 weekly budget to go towards the car servicing fund if I don’t spend any money today. Mmm…not enough!