When I first see the old schoolhouse, where Mairead and Vivion live, I find myself saying “wow” out loud. After driving for miles and seeing nothing but rolling hills, the striking Victorian building springs up out of the green. Originally built in 1867 and nestled in Powys, not far from the so-called Desert of Wales, it represents another era of rural Welsh life.
I am warmly welcomed by Mairead, 77, and offered a cup of tea. Originally from Ireland, she and her husband Vivion, 81, have lived in Wales for almost 40 years.
As I enter, Mairead rises from her chair and walks across the large room, her oxygen tube following her. “It should be in here, but we put it out in the hall because it’s so noisy.” She says, pointing to a doorway and to the rumbling of the equipment aiding her breathing.
She explains that they don’t have much and that all four of their children now live outside of Wales. “We used to visit them, now they have to come to us.” She says plainly. Her health has been in decline since she developed a tumour in her left lung six years ago. After receiving chemo, and since being diagnosed with COPD, she now requires constant oxygen.
The dramatic rise in energy prices is impacting us all, but for someone living in a 150-year-old home and dependent on 24/7 electricity to power a large oxygen concentrator it will surely be much worse.
Her tussle with the electricity company began in early March 2022. “They contacted me out of the blue and said, ‘we will have to put your direct debit up from £54 to £108’. I thought ‘good God, that’s a hell of a change’. I rang them and said this is unreasonable. They looked into it and came back and said, ‘actually, given your health conditions, we can do it for £79’. For three months it was fine and then next thing I know another email saying, ‘sorry you’re still not paying enough to cover your usage’. And then I thought, of course, it’s the oxygen!”
The good news for Mairead is that there is a rebate available to her for the electric the oxygen machine uses. Yet, this doesn’t diminish the anxiety when I ask her how she feels about the next imminent hike in energy bills – her one-word response: “terrified.”
The old school building and the four homes it has since become are all off-grid. Mairead and Vivion depend on an oil boiler and two log burners for heat. However, after 22 years, the boiler had become unreliable and uneconomical. Mairead heard about the Nest Scheme and that Care & Repair may be able to step in. “The boiler was getting very dodgy,” she tells me, “So, Steve [from Care & Repair Powys] came and helped me. He guided me through how to go about showing them [Nest] that I needed a boiler because of health issues. So, I got the boiler, which is absolutely amazing because we don’t have a lot of money, we just have our pensions. It was amazing to get the help we did and to keep the heat going.”
In recent months, many older people are starting to change their habits to reduce their bills and save money, sometimes even if it risks their health. I ask Mairead if they were going to have to change habits. “Hopefully not. Viv’s a great one for scavenging wood – that’s his life’s work. Getting wood and not having to pay for it.” Then with a chuckle she says, “I have to keep counting the trees to make sure they’re all there!”
Care & Repair Powys have been able to support Mairead in various ways in the last few years. Handrails and grab bars have helped to keep her safe at home and when she was in hospital, they were on hand to help again. “I had a problem with my shoulder, and I was in hospital for a fortnight. Care & Repair came out to see what they could do. They decided that they’d put in a wet room bathroom for me. They did that which is absolutely amazingly great, having a walk-in shower instead of a bath that I couldn’t get in or out of.”
Jack Bentley, PR & Marketing Officer