Another winter is almost here and elderly residents will again be hit hard when it comes to paying energy bills.

Consumers paid a record $13.4 billion more for electricity and gas last year then they paid the year before. This increse in energy costs is more than double the total rise in prices from 1948 to 1973. And prices could go up even more this winter.

It's not just heating bills that are plaguing the nation's elderly. Many people who live in warmer climates will attest to the fact that their air conditioning costs have risen to unbelievable levels.

The elderly are hit hardest by rapidly rising energy costs for a number of reasons. First, they often have lower incomes and face the grim choice of "heat or eat."

Second, the elderly often have little or no savings with which to install better insulation, storm windows and more efficient furnaces. Third, they often live in older houses or apartment buildings which desperately need refurbishing to cut down on wasted energy.

Finally, the elderly suffer much more from sharp drops and increase in temperature. As you grow older, your body's thermostat loses some of its fiexibility.

So, you know energy costs are out of sight. What can you do about it? Fist, you have to find out if there is any protection for you if you can't pay your bills and face a gas, electricity or fuel oil shutoff.

Last winter, two elderly residents of Buffalo, N.Y., froze to death after the utility shut them off. On Long Island, an elderly blind woman burned to death when her emergency propane gas room heater was accidentally knocked over. She was using the emergency heater because the utility company had shut her off because of non-payment.

More often than not, the utility will help you out if you let them know about your age, your lack of money and your generala circumstances. Noboday wants to have a customer freeze to death. Tell the utility you'll have to get in touch with this newspaper if some sort of emergency plan can't be worked out. Utilities are particularly sensitive to bad publicity.

And don't forget your state and local governments. Many local governments have installed special programs to provide emergency funds for people who face a utility shutoff because they can't pay their bills. And some localities even provide free or low-cost repair to make a home better insulated.

There are two major assistance programs being considered by the federal government and by some local governments:

(1) "lifeline" rates. you get a considerable discount on your utility bill if you can help your energy usage below a certain "minimum necessities" level. This is great for people who use very little energy, but the elderly often have use quite a bit of energy (and then you have to pay more). If you have to heat with electricity, your bill would be above the minimum level. And fuel oil users would not be included. It's not a very good concept.

But elderly energy users in Aztec, N.M., have an excellent discount plan. THey pay what the local government pays (30 to 40 percent discount) if they're over 65 and have income, other thanb Social Security, of less than $3,000 a year.

(2) Energy stamps. These would go to certified, low-income people to pay energy bills, and it's a great idea. The problem is, however, many areas are cutting back on local welfare programs because of recent opposition to higher property taxes. So it's difficult to say at this time if this idea will catch on in many places.

Q: Several years ago I started an IRA (individual retirement account) with a local bank because the company I worked for had no pension plan. Now, I work for another company that has a pension plan but vesting (ownership) of funds doesn't come for 10 years. Can I contribute to my IRA accounts until I'm vested?

A: No. But, you can keep the old IRA account earning interest until you retire.

Q: In a recent column on funerals, you discouraged people from investing in prepaid funerals because of the chance of fraud or misleading sales tactics. In Illinois, state law protects buyers of prepaid funerals. The state association (of funeral directors) urges individual directors to place prepaid burial deposits in long-term savings certificates for their clients. In this way deposits earn up to 8 percent interest, which largely offsets inflation. When a person dies, there's no early-withdrawal penalty. The Federal Reserve amended regulations to allow withdrawals from long-term savings certificates to pay for burial without any penalty. And, under Illinois law, your funds can be transfered to any location at the time of your death.

A: You have an excellent state law which protects consumers from losing money in prepaid burial plans. But the law doesn't assure the family that there will be enough money in the fund to pay for all funeral expenses. Also, it's important to note that the funeral director can get 5 percent of the initial investment and 5 percent of earned interest.