Older people who can't afford soaring energy bills need urgent help this winter, the Government has been warned.
A one-off £50 should be handed to households already eligible for extra payouts during cold snaps, and a council hardship fund should be doubled to £1billion, it was told.
'In most years it would be hyperbole to suggest there was a risk of older people freezing to death in their own homes, but the risk cannot be completely discounted this year,' says Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK.
Nearly one million poor older households currently struggle to pay heating bills, and rising costs mean a further 150,000 are in danger of experiencing fuel poverty this winter, according to the charity.
It is urging elderly people - or relatives acting on their behalf - to call its free national advice line on 0800 678 1602 before turning the heating off or down.
Its staff will help people check they are receiving all the financial support available - especially pension credit, which triggers a £25 cold weather payment when average temperatures plunge to zero degrees celsius or below for at least seven days.
A Government spokesperson said: 'We remain committed to protecting the most vulnerable in society and our £500million Household Support Fund was introduced this year to help people with essential costs through the winter.
'Supporting energy consumers is also a key priority, which is why our Energy Price Cap will remain in place, while we continue to help vulnerable and low-income households through initiatives such as the Warm Home Discount Scheme, Winter Fuel Payments and Cold Weather Payments.'
Age UK says 25,700 people got in touch to say they were worried about their energy bills between mid October and mid November, and some 6,500 campaigners have written to their MPs to raise concerns.
It believes escalating energy bills, as wholesale gas prices soar and smaller firms collapse, mean many poor households where one member is aged 60 or over will ration their heating this winter - and many are already feeling 'absolute dread' at the prospect.
You can call Age UK for free to check you are receiving everything you are entitled to on 0800 678 1602.
Are you claiming pension credit? Find out more about applying here, or call Age UK which will help you apply for help that includes cold weather payments.
Have you contacted your supplier? Age UK says energy providers have a duty to offer support if people are struggling with bills or debt, and you can ask about an affordable repayment plan.
Has your supplier gone bust? Find out what to do here.
Read a This is Money guide to dealing with soaring energy bills here.
'Part of the problem is that many older people are living in hard to heat, older homes and, as a result, often need use a lot of energy just to stay warm,' says the charity.
'The cold can be dangerous for older people, especially those with pre-existing health conditions. Older people tend to feel the cold more than younger people, as it is harder for them to regulate and maintain body temperatures.
'Low temperatures can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes in an older person, exacerbate lung conditions and worsen arthritis. Living in a cold home can also undermine an older person's mental health, contributing to anxiety, depression and loneliness.'
In its new The Cost of Cold campaign, Age UK is pressing the Government to take the following urgent action.
- Provide a one-off £50 to all those eligible for cold weather payments and speed up existing payments so they arrive no later than seven days after a period of freezing weather.
Usually it takes 14 working days, and the charity says: 'This delay, and the uncertainty it brings, means that many people will not heat their homes sufficiently during the cold snap.'
- Double the household support fund, which is distributed by local authorities, to £1billion. This would allow councils to help a greater number of vulnerable households which are unable to access means-tested support.
- Enshrine the energy price cap in law in the shorter term, and reintroduce 'energy social tariffs' for people in the deepest poverty - those who Age UK says 'pay the highest energy bills, are on the lowest incomes, and live in the coldest and least energy efficient homes'.
That includes people with medical conditions and disabilities that require them to use more heating and energy.
Peter, aged 75, told Age UK: 'It's a simple choice, heat or eat. I already confine myself to one room and stay in bed as long as possible. If I cut down any further there won't be any point in living.'
Geraldine, aged 77, says: 'I have arthritis which is worse when it is cold. I will have to keep my heating low now. Already I wear gloves on my hands and a heat pack inside my leggings to help my back.'
Sheila, aged 81, says: 'We will have to have the heating off, as the bills are scary.'
- Get more people signed up to pension credit, which is a passport to much extra help but is underclaimed by the elderly. See the box above.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, says: 'There's no doubt that media reports about rising energy bills are filling pensioners on low fixed incomes with absolute dread.
'It is clear that as things stand, some fully expect to have to choose between cutting down on food or turning down their heating, once the cold weather sets in.
'At Age UK our greatest concern is that some older people will not even try to keep their homes adequately warm this winter, for fear of incurring big bills they cannot afford to pay.
'Many older people are brilliant at making a small budget go a long way, but that's unlikely to be enough to protect them from the impact of rising household bills and soaring energy costs this time round.
'We must ensure that turmoil in the wholesale energy market does not translate into tragedy for any older person this winter.
'In most years it would be hyperbole to suggest there was a risk of older people freezing to death in their own homes, but the risk cannot be completely discounted this year. That's why we need Government action to ensure every older person comes through safe and well.'