Utility Week

Utility Week 21st February 2014

Utility Week - authoritative, impartial and essential reading for senior people within utilities, regulators and government

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Page 26 of 31

utILIty WeeK | 21st - 27th February 2014 | 27 Customers Analysis F or older people, keeping warm during winter goes hand in hand with looking aer their health. They may decide to have a 'stiff upper lip' because they've sur- vived colder winters in the past, but they had younger bodies then. And if they don't keep warm they could jeopardise their health." So says Mervyn Kohler, external affairs adviser for Age UK, summing up the poten- tial impact on older people of an increase in the cost of energy. Price hikes in utility bills can present significant challenges for older people. They may lack sufficient income and also come from a generation where being unable to pay your way is not an option. Seeking help can be regarded as charity. Utilities, as well as older people's chari- ties, recognise that older customers may avoid asking for help. "Many of our older customers don't want to bother. I speak from experience from being a main carer for my nan, who was self-sufficient and spent most of her life caring for others. She was reluc- tant to seek help when needed. She didn't want to take money away from others," says Sally Mills, customer policy and relations manager, South West Water. Bad publicity surrounding utility com- panies may also deter older people from approaching them to ask for support. "Energy supply companies are not every- body's flavour of the month at the moment. There's a reluctance to approach energy companies given the bad publicity, which has been a characteristic of the media's cov- erage in the past six months," says Kohler. He says the negative attitude towards utilities, combined with severe cold weather and health problems aggravated by the cold, could be detrimental for older people's well being. It is not only physical health that is affected, but potentially mental health too because of the stress and worry caused by not being able to afford to pay your bills. The scale of the challenges this vulner- able group face should not be underesti- mated. "Older people represent a third of households in this country, and a significant amount are struggling to pay their energy bills," says Kohler. To help address older people's concerns, in England energy companies are obliged to help people with the Warm Home Discount, a means-tested discount paid to any pen- sioner on pension credit. Individual utilities have also developed their own schemes. Age UK Devon and South West Water, for instance, are work- ing together to help older people make informed choices and decisions about their water usage. The company holds commu- nity events, such as "cream tea aernoons", attended by Age UK teams, to jointly pro- mote awareness about the support it offers. "We find these informal events help people to feel at ease and talk about any concerns they may have so we can see how we can help," says Mills. Working with Age UK has helped the company gain insight into the specific needs of older people, Mills believes. For example, South West Water's product advice leaflet On Tap uses language and wording "that reaches and resonates with customers, giv- ing real life examples that older people can identify with", says Mills. For individuals whose sight is impaired, including older people, United Utilities has introduced large print bills and a "talking water bill" where those with sight issues can access an automated call that confirms and explains bill payments. A text relay service is available for those who are hard of hearing. The company recognises that older people may have family members who are dealing with dementia or other conditions associated with this customer group, and in some cases, bereavement, and this requires specific sup- port from those dealing with queries. Sally Ainsworth, head of customer expe- rience at United Utilities, says: "We have a team of 20 highly skilled agents who are strong on empathy and know what steps to take in these circumstances. We've had great feedback from these customers and they've thanked us for being understanding." As part of its drive to support older peo- ple, Npower has an energy fund to clear their debt and "to start again at zero balance and move forward – it's a weight off their minds and reduces the worry they may be experi- encing", according to Paul Dear, social obli- gations manager at Npower. The company also offers energy effi- ciency advice on a helpline number that has "proved popular with older people", says Dear. This advice can involve a home visit to identify where energy is being wasted so that customers can make changes to reduce their energy bills. It also offers a password scheme so if a company representative needs to visit an older person they can use a password of their choice to help verify their identity, giv- ing them peace of mind. ScottishPower has introduced a Carefree register, which includes those over 60, and involves a free annual gas safety check and a protected service scheme where older people can nominate a relative or friend to receive a bill on their behalf. While utilities have measures in place for older people, Age UK would like to see more help for these customers. Kohler is con- cerned that older people are not aware of the benefits they are entitled to. "We know only two-thirds of people who are entitled to pension credit apply for it, and while we can be happy that 1.3 mil- lion pensioner householders are on pension credit and getting a Warm Home Discount, perhaps another half of them are not claim- ing," he says. A lack of accessibility remains a barrier for older people, he believes. Call centres can turn into a maze of automated options, and some older people are not comfortable pick- ing their way through websites. Energy improvements may not always be appropriate for older people without suffi- cient support Kohler says. "It seems improb- able for someone living on their own aged over 75 to go up and down a ladder to insu- late their lo," he says. For their part, utilities say they are mind- ful of the issue and are doing their best to improve. "Our overall strategy is to keep lis- tening, and we welcome feedback to make things as easy as possible," says Ainsworth. Kathy Oxtoby is a freelance journalist Supporting principles In an occasional series, Utility Week talks to utilities about the assistance they give vulnerable groups, and what more they could do. This week: supporting older people. By Kathy Oxtoby. "

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