For Gary and Natasha Waterhouse, the ongoing cost of living crisis is a literal matter of life and death as both suffer from life-threatening conditions that require them to have the heating on at all times.
The couple, who’ve been together for nearly 11 years, have shared their struggles as the eye-watering price hike for gas has caused them severe financial difficulties.
Speaking to the Mirror, the couple explained that shortly after their 2017 wedding, Natasha, 50, was diagnosed with a spinal cord tumour, located in such a position that it now affects her body’s ability to regulate temperature. Extremes of hot and cold can cause her pain. The family of five also needs electricity to keep Natasha’s medical equipment charged.
On top of Natasha’s health concerns, husband Gary, also 50, suffers from sleep apnea, a sleep disorder whereby breathing stops and starts repeatedly, with potentially grave consequences. To stay alive, he has to use a CPAP machine at night, a specialist piece of equipment that provides air at a pressure high enough to stop a person’s airway from collapsing.
Gary, from Bourne near Peterborough, explained: “We’ve had to prioritise our electricity to keep me alive. No exaggeration. So the other bills have had to take a back seat because we’ve had to have electricity no matter what. Because we’re on a prepayment meter, if we don’t have electricity, it stops.”
The family has seen their bills soar amid the energy crisis and currently spend approximately £200 a month on electricity, while their gas bills have risen from £30 per month to £130 a month.
Worryingly, they are not in a financial situation where they can absorb such rises, leaving them fearing that further harsh weather and price hikes could plunge them further into debt.
Having previously worked in the civil service, Gary was forced to leave his previously well-paid position to become Natasha’s full-time carer. The pair had previously held down jobs since the age of 14, with Natasha having worked in office administration, and previously enjoyed an income of around £60,000. Now they rely mainly on benefits, meaning the extraordinary financial pressures of the last few months have hit them hard.
As a carer, Gary receives carers’ allowance amounting to around 41p per hour (or £69.70 a week) and says getting somebody in to do the job would set them back £15 an hour, which is far beyond what they could afford. He attempted to improve their way of life by getting a car on finance to drive as a taxi, however, the high-interest payments plunged him into deeper debt.
Gary said: “The taxi lasted two months because the engine went. It now needs money spending on it, money I haven’t got, so now I’m in a worse situation, trying to work my way out of it. I’ve tried to keep three teenagers happy, fed, watered. It’s been tough emotionally and physically.”
The family has used food banks, and while Gary understands the feeling of being ‘too proud’ to do it, he encourages others to seek similar help. He’s also faced some negative comments about those who receive benefits.
The dad added: “They called me work-shy, this, that, and the other. They just don’t understand people’s circumstances. And people say, ‘Why don’t you go out to work and get a carer?’ Well, they cost more money.”
He added: “Carers in this country are forgotten about really, sadly. I had a meeting online yesterday with Turn2us and Carers UK, and everybody said how much money carers save the national health service. We just need help from the government for people like me where we can work part-time to hopefully better our lives and not go cap in hand all the time.”
In a bid to boost their finances, Gary now picks up taxi work in the evenings, which he fits in around caring for Natasha, and their children have also helped out at times, lending them money for electricity from their part-time jobs.
Looking ahead, Gary fears what’s going to come next and tries not to think about it too much to avoid feeling anxious and stressed. He says he feels like they’ve returned to ‘square one’ after initially trying to better their circumstances through taxi driving, and believes there’s currently ‘no help for anybody on the benefits treadmill’.
With all the pressures of the festive season, Gary feels fortunate that their kids are older now, and have not asked for too much this Christmas.
Gary, who says the family is still looking forward to Christmas this year, added: “So as long as we get food, that’s the main thing. We’ve been making cutbacks for Christmas for the last few years, so this won’t be much of a change. It’ll be just token presents for everybody and then just basically being together as the main thing. Presents are material, but family time is the main thing for us, and that’s what we thrive on.”