16 May 2024

Military veterans living in poverty after working into their 80s

10:35 am on 16 May 2024

By Annemarie Quill of Stuff

Tony Coleman, 85, only stopped working as a painter at 82.

Tony Coleman, 85, said food was the biggest struggle. Photo: Supplied / Stuff

Navy veteran Tony Coleman, 85, only stopped working as a painter at 82, while his wife Bev, 75, had her own property business until she was 72. Despite working hard all their lives they often can't afford to eat.

"Food is the big struggle, the cost just keeps going up. The fridge is empty. Last night we didn't have anything," says Bev.

They can't survive without regular parcels from the Foodbank.

"Even those are shrinking, because Foodbanks cater for so many people now, and food is more expensive for them too," she says.

Bev Coleman, 75, explains the retired couple's struggle to afford food to eat.

Bev Coleman, 75, says food is the big struggle. "Last night we didn’t have anything,” she says. Photo: Supplied / Stuff

The couple rent a tiny one bedroom apartment/studio owned by the RSA (Returned and Services' Association) in Katikati, Bay of Plenty.

They are grateful for the affordable rent, which is half that of market prices, says Tony.

"We pay $574 a fortnight. If we were paying market rates we would be paying that per week."

Rents in the Bay of Plenty are currently at record highs, at a median of $685 per week, only $5 less than Auckland. Last year the region topped Auckland as the most expensive place in the country to rent a home.

The Colemans moved to Katikati three years ago from Auckland's North Shore, after Tony developed a heart condition, meaning they both had to give up work.

The couple get $1720.98 a fortnight in Super, but despite the affordable rent, the rising cost of living means they struggle to cover essential bills, including power, insurance, health and food, meaning they go into debt each fortnight.

"Petrol has gone up so much it now costs us $92 to $100 or more a week, as I have regular hospital appointments in Tauranga," says Tony.

They have revealed their budget, pointing out it doesn't include contingencies, for example when they couldn't get a warrant because the car needed tyres.

Tony played trumpet for the Navy band when he was serving, then had a painting and decorating business.

Bev ran a property management company for 19 years. Tony only stopped work at 82 when he developed a heart problem, and Bev had to sell the business to take care of him.

They can't afford to go out and spend their time playing Scrabble and doing puzzles, and Tony is teaching Bev how to play the trumpet.

They have no friends in the Bay, says Bev.

"It's lonely and stressful, with Tony's health and financial worry. But we have each other."

Former pilot Alan Land, 94, worked until his 80s.

Former pilot Alan Land, 94, worked until his 80s. Photo: Supplied / Stuff

A few doors away, Alan Land, 94, is propping himself up on the kitchen bench trying to make himself a piece of toast for lunch as he skipped breakfast. He's in pain with leg ulcers, and uses a mobility walker.

An ex-service man, he was a private pilot for 50 years as well as working as an architectural draughtsman.

After a marriage breakup he lives alone.

Unable to stand to cook, he sometimes orders prepared meals at $150 a week, but this week has forgotten to, so gets by on cup a soup and toast.

"When I used to go the supermarket it was $100 a week, now you could double that or more. I'm not allowed to drink alcohol - I considered that non alcoholic beer stuff and couldn't believe they were charging more than the real stuff."

He supports people receiving government money when they are sick, old or cannot find a job, but thinks a lot of money is wasted.

"The system is broken when people who've worked hard or are sick are barely surviving when some are able but don't work.

"I always worked. Even after my breakup I was too depressed to fly or do architecture but I got out there and drove trucks, cut trees. It was good for me."

He still drives a car, so has been hit by petrol costs, but says it "keeps me alive".

"I've got to renew my licence soon, but if they say I have to give up my car they can take me out of here feet first."

RSA support services manager Andrew Brown says there are almost 200 housing units owned by RSAs around the country.

"In most cases the individual RSA's do not charge market rent, with the difference subsidised by the RSA which owns the unit."

RSA Accommodation operates a veterans first policy, but then opens to others in need, he says.

"When a unit becomes available, the RSA seeks veterans in need of housing to fill the vacancy. If no veteran applies for the unit, it is usually let to vulnerable elderly in the community."

There is high demand across Aotearoa for affordable accommodation for older people who are finding they cannot afford market rent on the Super.

Availablility of housing for the elderly varies across Aotearoa and is very limited, leaving many struggling.

- This story was first published on Stuff