‘The cost of living crisis left me living on bread and water’

Age UK: James speaks about his experience with undernutrition - Jon Super
Age UK: James speaks about his experience with undernutrition - Jon Super

“I’ve always liked helping people,” begins James, a 71-year-old from Rochdale. “Where I grew up, in rural Ireland, we loved to help one another. Showing concern for one another makes society so much richer.”

The desire to help people and make a difference prompted James to move to England and train as an NHS psychiatric nurse. He qualified in 1975 and worked his way up the ranks, managing a team of psychologists, psychiatrists and GPs.

But for all his hard work over the years, when he retired in 2016 James found himself alone and desperate. A separation from his wife slashed the pension pot he’d worked to accrue. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he found himself in daily, debilitating pain requiring four daily care visits just to help him cope. These were self-funded, further eating into his savings.

Though he is loath to sound “embittered” (“I know we’re going through a crisis nationally,” he says) the cost of living crisis hit James hard. “I’m not moaning about it,” he insists. “I grew up poor and learned that one can survive on very little. I was mostly just eating bread and drinking tea, perhaps tinned ravioli or baked beans when I could get it.”

Family members became concerned: he had slipped from 10.5st to just 7.5st – the average weight of a 13-year-old. “At the rate I was going, I was close to death,” he concedes.

Age UK: James speaks about his experience with undernutrition - Jon Super
Age UK: James speaks about his experience with undernutrition - Jon Super

James is far from the only person of his age being hammered by the cost of living crisis. According to statistics from Age UK – one of the four charities being supported by The Telegraph’s Christmas Appeal – 1.3 million older adults were either experiencing or at risk of undernutrition before the pandemic. Since then the conditions responsible – low-income, decreased mobility, limited transport to local shops, and social isolation – have only been amplified and compounded by rising food costs and higher energy bills.

According to the charity’s research, 2.5 million older people have started or expect to start skipping meals to make ends meet. The research also found 22 per cent were reducing or stopping spending on medications or specialist foods.

“Malnutrition is not a new problem among older people,” says Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s charity director. “In general the reasons behind it have tended to be to do with ill health and loneliness, but now the cost of living crisis means that some older people are literally unable to afford to feed themselves properly.”

One of the major reasons malnutrition is underreported is that “older people are typically self-reliant and this may make them reluctant to admit they’re finding it hard to afford the basics, like a nutritious diet,” says Abrahams.

This was certainly the case for James, whose pride prevented him from seeking help at first. “I’ve worked for 46 years; I’ve never been on benefits,” he says. “I worked every day.”

He tried his best to manage his soaring heating bills with warmer clothes and keeping the boiler switched off, while a local vicar offered to cook for him, do his washing, and provide company. “He’s a wonderful man who made such a difference,” says James. “I am lucky to have had him and I’m grateful to God for his help.”

messy paperwork - Alamy Stock Photo
messy paperwork - Alamy Stock Photo

When he was eventually persuaded to reach out to his local council for help in claiming attendance allowance from social services, James was met with a “Berlin Wall” of forms and bureaucracy. Feeling lost, he called Age UK’s advice line, where a volunteer helped him take the first steps to turning his life around.

“She was wonderful,” he enthuses. “I was stunned at the response. At a distance she did a wonderful transcription of everything I said, explained my situation to the council and helped me complete the forms and access that allowance. If she’d been on my team when I was an NHS manager I’d have rated her very highly. It made an enormous difference to me.”

Thanks to the help he received in accessing the attendance allowance, James has been able to save enough money on his care costs to buy a wheelchair to help him get around. “I also make sure I have a good basic meal every day,” he says. “My GP has given me fortified drinks, which have helped as well. I’m now at 9.5st, which is good – it was quite worrying for a time.

“Most of all though, I felt invisible, struggling along with low income for so long. So it was lovely to know that people could care enough to help me get help.”

How to help prevent undernutrition in elderly friends and family members

Undernutrition is a significant health problem in the UK, costing at least £23.5 billion, which is about 15 per cent of the total expenditure on health and social care, according to Age UK’s research. This is expected to rise as Britain’s population ages.

While it can be difficult to openly discuss the issue with independent relatives and friends, Abrahams offers some simple tips to help:

  • Encourage a visit to their GP to rule out other health conditions and offer to go with them.

  • If there is difficulty with chewing, encourage them to try eating soft foods such as scrambled eggs or yoghurts, or if teeth and dentures are a problem, make an appointment with a dentist. There are home visiting dental services for those who are house or bed bound.

  • If older people can’t face a large meal, encourage them to eat small meals and snacks throughout the day.

  • Move to full-fat versions of foods such milk, yoghurt and cheese.

  • If you do their shopping, draw up the shopping list together.

  • If arthritis or other problems mean their hands struggle with packaging, try to pick up items that are easy to open.

  • Make food smell appealing: the aroma of cooking can stimulate the appetite.

  • If their eyesight isn’t good, use a blue coloured plate – this helps people to see what they are eating.

  • Introduce a regular snack around a favourite TV programme.

  • Suggest they go on an outing to a local café with you or one of their friends.

  • If you can’t help with the shopping, look into online shopping. Local Age UK branches can also offer help to older people who have difficulty shopping or who are lonely.

  • If they have a care worker who prepares their meals, ensure the carer is aware of previous suggestions and that the older person’s nutritional requirements are included in their care plan.

Age UK is one of four charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. The others are Macmillan Cancer Support, RBLI and Action for Children. To make a donation, please visit telegraph.co.uk/2022appeal or call 0151 284 1927