HALF of the pensioners in Banbridge are living in poverty.
The shocking statistic, which is more than double that of the Northern Ireland average, was published in a recent Audit Office NI report.
Banbridge - which is 18 per cent higher than second place Ballymena in the table - tops the list of areas where many senior citizens are living on less than £206 per week.
In late 2009 the Leader revealed that an estimated £1.2 million worth of pension credits were left unclaimed in the district each year.
The Audit Office looked at the number of pensioners in the area who are not claiming the benefits they are entitled to, and concluded that single pensioners and older women are most at risk of living in poverty.
Fionnuala Cook, newly appointed chair of Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Seniors Network, said there may be a reluctance of older people in Banbridge to seek out benefits.
“Perhaps the people of Banbridge are less demanding,” said Fionnuala, who lives in Loughbrickland. “This is a clear example where the people of this area have not been asking for what they are entitled to.
“There is maybe a sense of embarassment and reluctance among people.”
Local pensioners are concerned at the rising living costs, especially that of fuel, according to Fionnuala.
“The cost of oil and much higher electricity bills - that is all contributing to the issue,” she said. “There’s a clear shortage of money and older people are having to stretch what they have to cover the cost of inflation and so on.
“This winter too must have made a huge difference to people.”
Research by Age NI, the charity which represents older people here, revealed many find the benefits system complex and confusing.
“Documents should be prepared and written in a way that people can understand,” said Fionnuala. “People should be made aware of their pension rights.”
The process of claiming pension credits is a means-tested one, but Fionnuala said Age NI is currently promoting the idea of an automatic payment system.
Patrick Minn, Chief Executive of A2B Benefits, said more reserach is needed into why this area is so badly affected.
“Banbridge doesn’t just top the league for pensioner poverty, but does so by a country mile,” he said. “The district doesn’t seem to be underserved by the Social Security Agency compared to any other, nor by independent advice provision, so we need to dig deeper into why Banbridge sticks out.”
Local councillor Seamus Doyle called on people to seek help.
“Many people may feel that they are not entitled to benefits, but there a great many who think they aren’t but actually are entitled,” said Mr Doyle.
“I urge anybody who is unsure to contact the local SDLP office on 38322140 or call in to work out your entitlement amount. During these tough times, every extra pound is welcomed in pensioners’ pockets.”
If you are concerned that you or an older relative or friend may not be claiming the right benefits, contact the Age NI Advice Service on 0808 808 7575 to speak to an advisor in confidence or visit www.ageni.org for more information.