A Far North pensioner living on her own went days without food and used only a blanket for heat against the winter's cold snaps.
The 70-year-old woman from Karikari is among thousands of Northlanders whose pensions are insignificant due to high living costs and lingering mortgage repayments.
"It's horrible, just horrible ... it's depressing for me because I never thought for a moment this is what retirement would be like," she said.
Ministry of Social Development (MSD) data obtained by the Advocate revealed 19,071 hardship grants were paid to Northlanders aged 65 and over between January 2019 and July 2021.
Most were paid to seniors living in the Far North, who received 54 per cent (10,380) of the total grants provided, followed by 37 per cent (7059) in Whangārei and 9 per cent (1632) in Kaipara.
More than 7000 hardship grants were needed to pay for food – with urgent medical and accommodation costs the next most common reasons.
Northland's harrowing figures formed 7 per cent of the total 255,684 hardship grants paid to seniors nationwide during the same period.
Gisborne's elderly population fared the worst when population size was considered, with 13,095 hardship grants per 100,000 people, followed by Northland with 9800 per capita and 7076 in Manawatū-Whanganui.
Taranaki recorded the lowest need for hardship grants, with 1895 grants paid per 100,000 people.
Covid saw the need for urgent financial help spike last year when MSD recorded a 12 per cent increase in hardship grants compared to 2019.
But even without Covid, life was tough for the country's older population, the retired Karikari bus driver saying it got even harder when her "hubby" died seven years ago.
"The majority of my pension goes to paying my mortgage and rates. At the end of the fortnight I have hardly anything left."
According to the Retirement Commission, around 12 per cent of people aged over 65 still pay a mortgage and the same number are renting.
The woman used a blanket to get through the winter instead of a heater as it sent her monthly power bill up to $70 and beyond her means.
Her fireplace sits unused as wood was unaffordable.
She keeps her fortnightly shopping bill to a humble $50 to $80 and when items run out she waits until she can afford to buy some more.
However, costs the woman couldn't avoid were medical bills – especially as she was recovering from heart surgery.
On average she spent $70 a week on doctor's visits and prescription medications.
"I can't go without my medication. I take three tablets for my heart and if I don't have those I will not be here tomorrow," she said.
The woman said her "depressing" experience was amplified as "professionals" attempted to steer her blindly towards securing a bank loan.
"I don't want to do that, I can't pay back $5 to $10 a fortnight."
They had also directed her to Work and Income without helping her understand what the process entailed.
"When you keep getting told 'no, I can't help you', you just give up."
Waikato pensioner Clive Hobson, 72, wanted to see the "grossly inadequate" pension rate raised to 72.5 per cent of the average wage from the current 66 per cent.
He launched a petition calling for the change after two years of weekly letters to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern returned unhelpful replies from Social Development and Employment Minister Carmel Sepuloni.
When Hobson retired, he and his wife had $25,000 in savings with their pension and superannuation on top to use for everyday living.
"Five years later those savings had been whittled down to below $5k and the pension couldn't cover all my expenses and the bank fee I was now incurring."
Hobson said a lot of elderly were "well off" but it was a cruel struggle for those who weren't.
"I haven't had a haircut in two years just to save some money," he said.
"I, like many other pensioners, have gone through rough times when inflation skyrocketed, mortgage interest rates were above 25 per cent which allowed us to save very little for retirement and what I have been able to save is now being eroded to prop up my pension.
"I recall when I started work over 50 years ago we were promised our pension would give us a stress-free retirement - where is it?"
A shining light for the struggling elderly are Papa Hone (aka Hone Martin snr) and his partner Rachel Kearney, who together created One Whānau at a Time to help Te Hiku locals in need.
The couple's eyes were opened to the extent of pensioner poverty after they first helped the Karikari woman by cooking her a kai while live-streaming the experience on Facebook.
"Out of nowhere, people started coming to us to help their grandparents and their kaumātua," Martin said.
Within three days they went from cooking one meal to around 150 a day for older Northlanders, intensified by Covid restrictions as kaumātua were unable to get food.
They currently provide a fortnightly group dinner for older Northlanders at The Vintage Tea Room in Kaitaia, to help feed and combat loneliness for seniors.
Some living conditions the couple had witnessed kaumātua enduring in the year since their charity was launched were the "most saddest sights" they had ever seen.
Together, they helped an 81-year-old stroke survivor who called a barren bach near Kaitaia home.
"There's no running water, no toilet, no power, no kitchen, no cooking facilities," Martin said.
"He has to ride his bike to the public toilet that is a couple of kilometres away but feels like 200 miles because he can't walk properly."
The couple also supported an elderly Kerikeri woman who lives off noodles so she can afford to pay $400 a fortnight in rent.
Martin and Kearney were astounded with the number of elderly Northlanders – from all backgrounds – enduring poverty in remote pockets of the Far North, accessible only with 4WDs.
"They're too proud to tell anyone about their situation and they don't want to be a burden," Martin said.
"These are the people that are been hidden away from the public. We need help to get these stories out there."
Te Hau Ora Ō Ngāpuhi chief executive Te Rōpu Smith (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Te Rino, Ngāti Hine, Ngāti Kahu) wasn't surprised elderly Northlanders needed help paying for urgent medical costs.
She said it wasn't unusual for struggling kuia and kaumātua to take less than the prescribed dose of their medication so it lasted longer.
"It becomes more affordable for them that way as they don't have a choice when it comes to medication, it's just the luck of the Pharmaceutical Schedule," she said.
New Zealanders currently pay a small contribution to the cost of the medicines prescribed by doctors —usually around $5 for most items.
However, if a medicine is not fully subsidised, people may have to pay more. Pharmac decides which medicines will be subsidised and at what level.
"They're so used to going without ... they've been born out of the Depression so they've been conservative, always saving and not wasting anything."
The Tai Tokerau Emergency Housing Charitable Trust had seen an increase in older Northlanders turning to them for help with accommodation.
The trust's kaiārahi/manager Ange Tepania said they had people aged 65 and older staying in both the men's and women's homes.
"The number one factor is a lack of affordable housing, which we are fairly powerless to do anything about."
She said senior Northlanders were having to "move on" from their homes because of their circumstances as they retire or because they have nobody to take care of them.
"Then they're trying to enter a housing crisis where the average rent for a one-bedroom home or unit starts at $280. That's just not sustainable for anybody let alone our older folk."
Tepania said unemployment, low incomes, education, poverty, addiction, mental health challenges and family breakdowns were the factors driving homelessness for all ages.
"Right now our tenants are staying with us longer and longer, the housing crisis is ballooning, and our confidence in a better future for them is diminishing."
Whangārei had "very few suitable or affordable homes" for people to transition to permanently.
"We are becoming a holding pen. Our whānau cannot get on with their lives," Tepania said.
Age Concern New Zealand chief executive Stephanie Clare said we should be alarmed at how many senior Kiwis need a helping hand to access life's essentials.
"The assumption that all older people own their own home contributes to the dialogue that they don't struggle in life," she said.
Technology was a barrier hindering older New Zealanders from easily accessing life's essentials.
"The digital divide is a recognised barrier to access for many aspects of our life, for example, banking, buying groceries online and telehealth," Clare said.
• To donate to One Whanau At A Time, visit their Givealittle page.
Where can you find help?
• Seniorline - 0800 725 463
• Age Concern New Zealand - 0800 65 2105
• ElderNet - www.eldernet.co.nz
• Information about NZ Super - Work and Income - 0800 552 002
• Information about SuperGold Card - 0800 25 45 65
• Healthline - 0800 611 116
• Rates Rebate Scheme - ratesrebates.govt.nz
• Citizens Advice Bureau - 0800 FOR CAB (0800 367 222)
• Enliven – Positive Ageing Services - 0800 ENLIVEN (0800 365 4836).