Outside Helen Phipps Watson’s Chester home sits a much-loved but unused white camper van.
Old and with moss growing on the windshield, the vehicle is taxed and roadworthy but un-driven. Helen neither has the time to take it out, nor the money to fill its tank.
The 49-year-old dreams of a day when she can hit the open road and with her milestone birthday approaching next year, the words ‘retirement’ and ‘pensions’ should be on her mind.
And, while they are, it’s sadly not with her camper van in mind, as Helen predicts it will be years before she can stop working.
She is one of thousands of people who, struggling with the cost of living, are unable to plan for a retirement.
This wasn’t bad financial planning on Helen’s part; her work as a psychologist earned her a six-figure salary and she had nest eggs across multiple accounts, alongside her pension pots.
Helen gave up a well-paid career to care for her loved ones. Now she can’t afford to heat the house (Picture: owner supplied)
But when her mum fell ill with cancer in 2011, only child Helen didn’t think twice about giving up work to look after her. She went on secondment from a job she loved and became a 24/7 carer overnight.
Her mum died a few months later, and Helen was left as the sole carer for her dad, who had early-onset Alzheimer’s. Four months after that, Helen’s husband had a serious stroke which left him with sight loss, heart failure and vascular dementia.
Which leaves her where she is now.
More than a decade of caring has cost Helen all of her £150k savings – £30k of it was spent on pads for her father who was doubly incontinent for years – and now she is unable to stay warm.
‘I went from a really good salary to the lowest form of allowance; £76 a week that we have to pay tax on,’ Helen tells Metro. ‘We don’t get things like free prescriptions, opticians or dental care and we can’t afford to have the heating on. We are just surviving financially.’
On the verge of launching a business providing respite care for other carers, Serenity Respite Care, she predicts that she will have to work ‘many more years than I’d anticipated’.
‘Hopefully if I love my work, it won’t be too bad,’ says Helen. ‘But I have been out of work since 2011 and the thing with unpaid caring is, you don’t know how long it will be. I didn’t think 15 years later I would still be caring for a loved one.’
It was during all that time that she was unable to pay into a pension, and now Helen simply cannot afford to.
Helen and Ian are largely housebound as Ian struggles with mobility (Picture: owner supplied)
‘Things have got a lot harder since the cost-of-living crisis,’ she adds. ‘I am housebound because my husband is housebound. We can’t go to food banks or sit on buses or go to warm hubs. We have cut back on absolutely everything and the heating is turned off. We wear layer upon layer – it probably won’t do the house any good.’
Fear of living in poverty in later years is a problem that disproportionately affects black and Asian women, explains Financial Educator and Coach Elizabeth Buko.
‘Being unable to afford to retire is a harsh reality many women in the UK face – and this didn’t just happen overnight,’ she tells Metro. ‘Research shows two out of every three Black women are worried they will run out of money during retirement. And 53% of Black women have nothing saved for retirement. It is only slightly better for South Asian women and white women with 40% and 35% respectively with no retirement savings.’
Financial Elizabeth Buko says financial struggle disproportionately affects women (Picture: Striking Places Photography)
Elizabeth says she is working with one woman who told her she will have to work 9-5 until she dies. Blaming the gender pay gap, the cost of childcare and how the amount of time taken out of work during child raising years affects final salaries, many women are left unprepared and worried about the future, she adds.
It is this fear that is driving many back to work after retirement – and not just women.
The number of over 65s in work has risen dramatically in recent years, according to Rest Less, a digital community for the over 50s. There were 1.46 million in work at the latest count in July, a 10% increase from the 1.33 million over 65s working pre-Covid.
Julian Price has endured a long and busy career in public services; spending 40 years in education and in the NHS. He was looking forward to his retirement this month, when he was planning on ‘a life of luxury’ – but it hasn’t quite panned out. He now spends his days in dank and cold graveyards, cleaning up memorial stones.
Julian Price predicts another decade of work before he can retire (Picture: owner supplied)
The 58-year-old from Gwynedd, who was employed as a mental health support worker for the last 17 years, was planning on three holidays a year and putting his feet up. However, his NHS pension amounts to just £300 a month, which isn’t enough to get by in a time when some household items have tripled in price amid soaring inflation.
In fact, Julian – who only buys own brand and doesn’t turn the heating on unless it is necessary – says it just isn’t enough to live on. He will have to work another decade before he can retire.
‘Ideally, I would be working part time; 20 hours a week, but that’s not possible at the moment,’ he tells Metro. ‘I am working five days a week, and some weekends. I do get down sometimes, but business is taking off and I am trying to stay positive.
‘It is tough work. My job used to involve a lot of physical restraint, so I am strong. But I am working in the wind and rain and it is a strenuous job. I am getting older and my joints feel it.’
Julian, who is single and with no kids, recently set up Carnation Memorial Maintenance and was supported by Pride Cymru a Welsh charity that helps people 50+ to start their own business.
faltige Hand einer Seniorin mit Geldmünzen, Köln, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Deutschland (Credits: Getty Images/Westend61)
Projects Manager, Beverley Kennett says: ‘We have seen a sharp increase in the number of people having to come out of retirement due to the cost-of-living crisis, to avoid going into debt. Most have resigned themselves to the fact they will have to continue working until they reach state pension age just to make ends meet.’
Thousands of pensioners are in the same boat as Julian, with insufficient money in their pension pots to retire, new research has found. 18% say their quality of life is going to deteriorate because they don’t have enough money in their pension funds, while 15% feel their biggest mental health strain is worrying about funding their retirement, according to Senior Capital, a later life lending specialist.
Stevyn Colgan has gone back to work full time after retiring (Picture: owner supplied)
62-year-old Stevyn Colgan led a busy and fulfilling career as a police officer, a job he retired from in 2010 after 30 years.
He didn’t want to stop work entirely, but his police pension meant he could slow down, taking on freelance work as a writer and speaker at live events. He was able to pay his bills and pick and choose his work – some of which was as a script writer for the TV show QI.
‘We didn’t have much money left at the end of each month but we were reasonably comfortable and I could enjoy being semi-retired,’ Stevyn tells Metro. ‘Then Covid came along and killed off the festivals and talks. TV companies got hit hard and reduced freelance staffing and publishing was hit hard too. These days, it’s tough to get a commission.’
After 30 years in the police, Stevyn had big plans for retirement. (Picture: owner supplied)
Then the cost-of-living crisis hit and Stevyn from Buckinghamshire started making every possible cutback.
‘I don’t really know what I wanted from retirement, but I didn’t think I’d be back to full-time work, that’s for sure,’ he says. ‘I had plans to move back to Cornwall where I grew up but after the pandemic the cost of living just went up and up. Suddenly the pension wasn’t quite enough so it was back to work. And there are few jobs in Cornwall – it’s one of the poorest places in the UK – so I’ve stayed in the south-east.
“We’ve economised in a number of ways. We got rid of a car, which saved a lot of money every year and I’ve become a very canny shopper. I look for the bargains and I do a lot of batch cooking and freezing. I waste almost nothing – a chicken will easily make four meals for two people – and I grow some veg in the garden too and forage.
‘I pick enough free wild fruit every autumn to make all the jams and chutneys I need for the year ahead. I ditched my mobile phone contract and went pay-as-you-go and I don’t take the upgrades. I’m fit and healthy but my body loves to remind me that I’m 62 and not 22.’
Stevyn, who is married and has three grown up children, runs press outfit Breakthrough Books and says he is coping well, but can see how tough for his friends who still have kids at home.
‘The property situation in the UK is scandalous and the likelihood of retiring with the kids having left the nest is getting ever more remote,’ he adds. ‘Even if they have jobs and are paying a form of rent to their parents, it still has a huge impact on energy and food bills. Many retirees I know have gone back to work because of this.’
Worried senior man reading bad news in paper letter document feels disappointed, stressed old man troubled with high taxes or domestic bills, concerned about bank debt, financial problem concept (Credits: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Chris Walsh, of age and employment specialists Wise Age, says the picture is complex, and while many older people are forced into jobs, there are also many that want to work who are facing ageism.
‘There are up to 2 million older people who want to work and we see the same struggle on a regular basis; that ageism is endemic in all sectors of British employers,’ he explains to Metro. ‘It’s very, very rare that you will get offered a job in any public sector organisation over the age of 60 and if you are a 58-year-old male made unemployed, you have a less than 10% chance of getting another full time proper job.’
A survey carried out by Wise Age also reported that nearly 80% of older workers were not making enough money to live at a basic level, while 89% said increases in food and utility costs had left them choosing between different essential items.
Worryingly, almost a third had used a food bank in the last year and half said they were living in poverty. Respondents reported high blood pressure, anxiety, poor sleep and depression as a result.
Depression-sadness, loss of appetite (Credits: Getty Images)
With many over 60s now stuck on zero wage contracts on minimum wage and no guarantee of getting paid, it is affecting their confidence, adds Chris. ‘It’s terrible for their self esteem. We have so many people who come to us practically in tears.’
Meanwhile, Helen remains stoical. She sometimes lets herself dream of a future driving around the coast in her little white camper van, but she knows in reality she may have to take on work that doesn’t reflect her knowledge, qualifications or experience.
‘It fills me with dread, the type of work I could do, like being a carer or shop worker,’ she says.
‘I don’t regret at all providing that care and love to my family. But it doesn’t sit well. You should not be thrown into poverty for doing something that is saving the government a lot of money.
It’s devastating really, what it’s done to me. I try not to think about it, as it’s better not to dwell.’
Nearly 80% of older workers were not making enough money to live at a basic level.