Fuel Poverty, Older People and Colder Weather: An all-Island Analysis

15 Dec 2011: A study carried out by a group of researchers from Dublin Institute of Technology, the Institute of Public health in Ireland (IPH), Northern Ireland Centre of Excellence in Public Health, and Brunel University London has shown that many older people forego other necessities in order to ensure that they can pay heating bills, and 24% of those surveyed said they found their homes too cold.  The research explored the experiences of a sample of 722 older people that were linked to a range of community and voluntary groups and services, (including Age Action, Energy Action, Rural Transport schemes and health and social housing service providers) and was funded by the Centre for Ageing Research and Development in Ireland (CARDI).  The report was presented to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Pat Rabbitte TD, at a press launch in DIT today.

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Professor Patrick Goodman, School of Physics, DIT; Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Pat Rabbitte TD; and Dr. Helen McAvoy, Senior Policy Adviser, Institute of Public Health (IPH)

The report - Fuel Poverty, Older People and Cold Weather: An All- island Analysis - features findings from a survey of older people's experiences of cold weather in the Republic of Ireland and was carried out during in January to April 2011.  It also includes a review of national fuel poverty statistics relating to older people as well as an analysis of excess winter deaths among older people in both the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Principal Investigator Professor Pat Goodman from Dublin Institute of Technology said: "Winter mortality rates in both jurisdictions have decreased but there are still significant differences between winter and summer mortality rates in older people, and cold homes can contribute to this phenomenon".

Previous analysis, led by Dublin Institute of Technology, on cold-weather-related deaths in Dublin showed that each 1 degree Celsius drop in temperature was associated with a 2.6% increase in deaths over the subsequent 40 days, with the majority of these deaths occurring in older people.

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Institute of Public Health Senior Policy Officer Dr Helen McAvoy said the research revealed a 'dual burden' for older people who are more likely to experience fuel poverty and also vulnerable to considerable health and social harm as a result of this experience.  "Older people were the age group most at risk of fuel poverty. This was driven by poor housing condition, energy inefficient housing, rising fuel prices and low income. Older people living in a home they considered 'too cold' were more likely to report significant ill-health and disability. Older people who are over 75, older people living alone and those with a chronic illness or disability were particularly vulnerable."  While 12% of older people in the Republic of Ireland did not have central heating compared to 7% in Northern Ireland, older people in Northern Ireland were particularly vulnerable from an income point of view. "This indicates that a different balance of measures may need to be adopted in each jurisdiction," she said.

CARDI Director, Dr Roger O'Sullivan welcomed the research. "Reducing fuel poverty is an important component in ensuring the health and well being of older people across the island of Ireland. In this time of economic austerity, vulnerable older people, particularly those living alone, face many pressures on their household budgets but it is imperative that older people are able to heat their homes effectively and efficiently. This report underlines the importance of initiatives that upgrade the energy efficiency of all dwellings inhabited by older people."

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Last month the government published  Warmer Homes - A Strategy for Affordable Energy in Ireland .  This estimated that almost half of older people living alone (around 95,000 of these householders) were experiencing energy poverty. The authors of Fuel Poverty, Older People and Colder Weather, say that their study shows the need for firm commitments in terms of improvements in the housing condition, energy efficiency and installation of useable central heating systems in older people's homes and "not just income supports and allowances."

Responding to the presentations made by the research group, Minister Rabbitte welcomed the study and its focus on the underlying issues that contribute to fuel poverty.   He said one of those underlying issues was the poor quality of building standards, resulting in energy inefficiency in a large number of homes and significantly higher fuel costs.  Commenting on the Better Energy Scheme’’ announced by his Department, he said the government had committed €76 million for the Scheme for the year 2012.  “During the coming year the Better Energy Scheme will fund measures to upgrade the energy efficiency of a further 17,000 low-income homes as well as offering grant support to encourage many other home owners who will invest in the retrofitting of their own homes.”

Fuel Poverty, Older People and Colder Weather: An all Island Analysis is available at: http://www.publichealth.ie/document/fuel-poverty-older-people-cold-weather

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