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Are you facing a bleak winter?

By Stephen Lewis  writing in the York Press


OUTSIDE, it is bitterly cold, despite the bright November sun. Inside, however, where members of the Age Concern day club are getting ready for lunch, it is warm and cheerful.

At tables scattered around a bright room, elderly people are playing dominoes, leafing through newspapers, and chatting quietly.

"I'm always cold," says 83-year-old Margaret Butler with a little laugh. She holds out her blue-tinged hands for me to see. "I'm a cold article!"

The sudden change in temperature has caught many by surprise. From one of the warmest Octobers on record, suddenly, at the beginning of November, night-time temperatures have plunged below freezing.

Add the dipping temperatures to the ever-greater cost of heating your home because of soaring gas prices, and some experts are worried many elderly people face a cold, bleak winter.

Are members of the day club worried about keeping warm this winter?

She does feel the cold more now than when she was younger, Margaret admits. But she tries to keep her home warm. She lives in sheltered housing, but is responsible for the fuel bills.

"The winter fuel allowance helps, of course it does. But people that haven't got the money are bound to be careful."


If it gets too cold, she jokes, she can always go to bed. But she prefers to stay more active, moving around and sitting in the living room where it is warm.

When it comes to keeping warm in winter, adds 74-year-old Ethel, who did not want to give her full name, it is important that older people don't worry about fuel bills. "Forget about it!" she says. "If you sit and worry about it, you make yourself ill!"

Most at the day club agree that the winter fuel allowance and cold weather payments do take some of the worry out of keeping warm.

Not that the Government is over-generous, adds 86-year-old Eric White. "When you get to the age of 80, you get an extra 25p a week on your pension," he says. "That's an insult to our generation!"

The message from experts is that older people mustn't stint on the heating now the cold weather is here.

Every year in winter, says York GP Dr David Fair, doctors have to deal with a rise in cold-related conditions - everything from coughs and colds to flu, pneumonia and heart problems.

The cold can also lead to confusion and an increase in falls and other accidents.

Older people are affected more, he says, for a number of reasons. They may be less aware than younger people of how cold they are actually getting, which is dangerous in itself. And because their metabolism is slower, they generate less internal heat than younger people.

So it is vital that they keep warm, and don't begrudge spending on fuel bills, he says.

"Keep at least one room in the house well-heated," he says. "The winter fuel allowance is specifically designed to help you stay warm. And if it is very very cold and you don't have to go out, bed is the warmest place!"

If you are really worried about the cost of heating your home, there are a range of grants that can help you, says James Player, of Age Concern York (see panel opposite).

The important thing is not to just sit there in the cold, he says. Move around occasionally to help you keep warm. Have plenty of hot drinks, and eat well - with at least one hot meal a day. And instead of wearing one thick coat, wear lots of layers of clothes, James says, because that traps warm air around your body. "The layering technique is used by mountaineers!" he says.

How to keep yourself warm

The NHS has issued the following tips for keeping warm in winter:

  • Eat well, ensuring you have a balanced diet. Try to eat something from each of the five major food groups each day. These are:
  • - cereals, bread or potatoes
  • - fresh fruit and vegetables
  • - milk and dairy products
  • - meat, fish, eggs or beans
  • - sugary, fatty foods
  • Have at least one hot meal a day, and have plenty of hot drinks throughout the day. Keep a flask with a hot drink in it by your bed in case you feel cold at night
  • Dress appropriately. In the house, wear several layers of thin clothes to trap body heat. Make sure you are warm in bed, too, by wearing bed socks, thermal underwear and even a nightcap or scarf round your head. Outdoors, wear several thinner layers under your coat, and a hat - a lot of heat is lost through your head
  • Moderate exercise is always good for your health, and in winter will help keep you warm. Try to establish an exercise routine - it may be as simple as going for a daily short walk, though take care if conditions are icy. Try not to stay sitting still for too long - break up the day with regular small chores, for example.

Rumours that we are facing an Arctic winter are much exaggerated, according to weatherman Jeremy Plester, of MeteoGroup. If anything, temperatures through the winter are expected to be slightly above average. But there is no doubting that we have been experiencing a bit of a cold snap.

Night-time temperatures in some parts of North Yorkshire earlier this week reached a low of almost -3 Celsius - and it felt even colder than that because of a stiff breeze, and because of the sudden contrast with the earlier, warm weather. October, Mr Plester says, was the third warmest on record. The sudden cold snap is the result of a change in wind direction.

Whereas before we were getting southerly winds bringing warm air from the Atlantic, Africa and the Mediterranean, they have now changed to cold winds from the north.

Added to that, there is an area of high pressure over the UK, which ensures clear skies but even colder nights. It will not last, however. Tonight will be cold but over the weekend it will be less chilly, and there will be some patchy cloud. By next week, the winds will have veered around to the south again, and it will be less cold with more clouds and some rain. "So don't get all your winter wardrobe out quite yet!" Mr Plester said.

Help heating your home...

If you are a pensioner or are on benefits and the spiralling cost of gas means you are genuinely worried about keeping warm this winter, there are a number of places you can turn to for help:

  • Winter fuel payment. This is ?200 for most households with someone aged 60 or over, plus an extra ?100 for households with someone aged 80 or over. For those receiving pension credit, income support or jobseekers' allowance, there is also a cold weather payment of ?8.50 a week if the temperature is below 0 Celsius for seven consecutive days
  • Energy Efficiency Grant. If you are 75 or over and own your own home, you may qualify for a grant to cover the full cost of loft or wall insulation, and even to pay for central heating if you don't have it. Phone the Energy Efficiency Advice Centre in York on 0800 512012 to find out more. The centre can also offer a free home energy check, to help you find ways of heating your home more cheaply and efficiently
  • If you are on certain benefits or pension credit, the Warm Front scheme run by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) can offer grants of up to ?2,700 towards the cost of improving your central heating, draught-proofing, or insulating your loft, walls or hot water tank. The grants are means tested. Phone 0800 316 2814 to find out more
  • If you are a pensioner, have a disability or a long-term health problem, you may be entitled to a free gas safety check, or the free installation of special controls if you find your gas and electricity appliances difficult to use. Phone Energywatch on 08459 060708 to find out more. Making sure your gas boiler is regularly serviced is very important, says James Player of Age Concern York. A well-serviced boiler will be more efficient, so your bills will be less. And a faulty boiler can be dangerous. "It can cost you your life."

Are you entitled to a flu jab?

There is usually a surge in colds, coughs and the flu at this time of year, says York GP Dr David Fair.

These common winter viral conditions are not actually directly related to the cold at all but, for some reason, at this time of year there are a lot more viruses around.

It may be because people tend to spend more time indoors, where the air is staler. It may be because children go back to school at the beginning of September - and suddenly all share their viruses around. Or it may even be to do with changes in weather patterns that bring viruses down out of the stratosphere - though Dr Fair admits he's not convinced by that one.

Whatever the reason, it is very important that elderly people and those in at-risk groups, such as diabetics and asthma suffers, get the free flu jab to which they are entitled at this time of year.

The flu jab will not protect you against colds, says Dr Fair, but it will reduce the chances of you catching flu (a potentially fatal illness) by as much as 70 or 80 per cent.

Contact your GP to find out whether you are entitled to the free jab.



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