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Nurses reported visiting patients who struggled to heat their homes. Alamy Stock Photo
energy poverty

Palliative care nurses report visiting cancer patients who cannot heat their homes

Nurses reported visiting patients in unheated homes and in homes where mould and damp were evident.

LAST UPDATE | 8 Dec 2023

A SURVEY OF home care nurses has found evidence that some people receiving palliative cancer care at home are unable to afford heating.

The Irish Cancer Society, which funded the research by South East Technical University, has called on the government to extend eligibility for social welfare supports, including fuel allowance and the households benefits package, to anyone with a cancer diagnosis and in particular to those with a terminal diagnosis.

Researchers from South East Technical University surveyed 61 nurses from across Ireland, including a minimum of two nurses in each county. The research investigated energy hardship among people with a life-limiting cancer diagnosis receiving palliative care at home.

One in three home care palliative care nurses surveyed reported observing “patients’ homes without heating” in a six month period to March 2023, the coldest months of the year. Forty-six percent reported there was no central heating in some homes they worked in.

Half had observed mould, while almost two thirds had observed damp in patients’ homes where they were providing palliative care.

One nurse told the survey: “Numerous people stay in bed as it’s warmer and cheaper than turning on heating or lighting fire.”

Another told of how “one family didn’t have fuel for their stove for their loved one’s dying days”.

A third nurse told the survey: “I regularly visit elderly patients who have electric plug-in heaters on 24/7 to heat the one room of the house they live in.”

Fuel bills cause huge financial worry for a chorot of patients living off a pension, or sometimes family members [are] paying their bills.”

Dr Suzanne Denieffe of SETU said: “Home care palliative care nurses reported to us ongoing energy hardship and financial difficulties faced by patients in their home.

“Our research sheds light on the hidden costs of cancer often experienced in the privacy of a person’s home. Now, we must bring this conversation into the public domain to highlight the needs of people living with a life-limiting cancer.”

Anna Drynan Gale, Night Nursing Team Lead at the Irish Cancer Society said coldness and damp affected patients’ physical and mental wellbeing, as well as their health.

“I have attended to patients in homes where the internal temperature has been dictated to by financial concern rather than choice,” she said.

Evidence of condensation, mould and damp were apparent, contributing to respiratory problems and adversely affecting a patient’s immune system, specifically in immune-compromised patients following chemotherapy.”

Averil Power, CEO of the Irish Cancer Society, noted that people with a terminal illness qualify for a medical card and questioned why they do not also automatically qualify for state benefits aimed at alleviating fuel poverty.

“People who are terminally ill or at the end of life feel the cold more, they need to wash their clothes more and run [medical] equipment. Their energy needs are higher. There needs to be an acceptance of that,” Power said.

She said that people at the end of their lives deserved comfort.

Over 9,000 people die from cancer each year in Ireland.

The survey was based on a similar study by the Marie Curie charity in the UK, which funds palliative care research. It was conducted online between May and September this year.

Government responds

Responding to the research, a government spokesperson said last night that people struggling with energy costs could apply for the Additional Needs Payments scheme, or check if their supplier had a hardship fund for customers experiencing financial problems.

“The government is very aware of the impact energy costs have on households, particularly for groups who may need support,” the spokesperson said.

Three €150 electricity credits will be applied to domestic electricity bills this winter, while a moratorium on disconnections for electricity and gas is also in place until the end of March.

“This year, a budget of approximately €150m has been provided for the Warmer Homes Scheme. This is expected to deliver approximately 6,000 free home energy upgrades for households in, or at risk of, energy poverty. The scheme will be further expanded in 2024,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson added that the Department of Socail Protection can pay a heating supplment, under the Additional Needs Payments scheme, to “assist people in certain circumstances that have exceptional heating costs due to ill health, infirmity or a medical condition and are unable to meet those costs out of their household income”. 

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