Pensioner Pain

Reporter: Jasmine Homer

These are the faces of Perth's poverty crisis; pensioners who say the rising cost of living has robbed them of their dignity; going without food, heating, hot showers - even medicine.

Mary London's battling to get by on a disability pension of just over four hundred dollars a week. In the last year, her gas bill has doubled; she's too scared to turn on the shower. "There's only a basin of water for a strip wash three days a week. And I use Huggies baby wipes on the other days."

Mary's gone through winter without the heater on, even once, "I am absolutely freezing" and still - the bills go up. These ones are all unpaid. "What's the point of opening them when you've only got 55 cents."

And the increases in the pension? Has that made any difference? A few dollars? My rent's gone up more than that. It's a joke.

Mary says "I'm not eating healthily, nowhere near. I'm anaemic because I can't afford meat. Fruit and veges - it's just not possible. I'm usually living on cheese, lettuce and mayonnaise sandwiches."

"Quite often you just have cereal because you just don't have enough." Julie Pitham lives on less than Mary - around 350 dollars a week. "How much would you spend per week on food? Between 15 and 20 dollars a week is my budget."

Julie says "It's hard because I mean my gas used to be 34 dollars a quarter now it's like 60 dollars. And I'm not using any more, I always use the same amount of gas." To keep up with the bills, Julie's cut back on medicine. "Sometimes I have to make it stretch by, if I haven't got enough to get a script filled I need to, divide them so that they last longer.

Or you just try and not take the pain medication and you suffer with the pain."

"People are going hungry or they're going cold." Andrew York has worked in community services for 20 years and says he's never seen it this bad. Many of our seniors will actually live off 40 dollars a week for food. Their staple diet is baked beans and bread."

"We've got people now that make a decision either to pay a power bill, be it power or gas, or not purchase food." Andrew runs People Who Care - a volunteer agency for pensioners. "How are we going to pay our bills, what am I going to do if my electricity gets cut off, I can't live in the dark, what if I can't pay for food, what am I going to do, and they're the sort of requests for welfare services that we're getting more and more."

In the last three years, gas has gone up- 40 per cent

Water - up 47 per cent

Electricity - up 57 per cent

In the same time, the single pension's gone up 25 per cent.

Couples are only getting 14 per cent more.

Andrew York says "We know at People Who Care of two specific examples where clients actually did pass away and it was actually because they weren't putting their heating on during winter. And you're starting to see more and more of those health issues as well. Many of our pensioners will only turn their power on for one hour a day. The only appliance that they'll leave on is the fridge."

For John and Thelma Grogan - switching off is not an option. The utilities bills are costing us everything. John has emphysema. This oxygen machines runs 24 hours to keep him alive.

John and Thelma get some help from the government but the power bill takes most of their pension. Thelma says "Utilities bills have to be paid first and on time, otherwise you get charged an extra 15 dollars."

These pensioners are not career bludgers - they've all worked. Andrew says "Many of our clients at people who care have been business owners in the past they've been through wars and now they find themselves in a situation now where they don't have a disposable income and their only income is a pension."

They're not even asking for more money. Julie says "We would probably cope on what we have now, if the government froze the cost of things for a while. There's no point saying ok we're going to give you an extra 50 dollars or an extra 60 dollars and then put everything up again because you're just in the same boat."

Andrew York's appealing for the government to step in and immediately freeze utility prices for pensioners. "We hear about the carbon tax, couple of months ago we managed to shut down a whole cattle and beef trade, and yet you've got pensioners, people with disabilities that are going hungry and can't pay their bills. To me it just doesn't seem right about where we're putting our time and our effort into." but it's a cry for help, we've all heard before.

So, as the cost of living eats more and more into pensioners' pockets - these guys are cushioning the blow. With food parcels, bus services, gardening, home maintenance and company.

People Who Care help with bills where they can, but so many are asking for help, they're stretched to the limit. Now, they need help themselves; donations or volunteers.

Andrew York says "Two or three years ago we didn't have the financial requests for help you had service requests for help so people wanting to have transport get picked up taken to medical appointments, now it's about Andrew we don't necessarily need the transport service but how are we going to pay our bills."

For more information on People Who Care's Power aPensioner campaign visit:www.peoplewhocare.org.au