Cold winter weather can be dangerous if not deadly for everyone, but more so if you live with a disability. That became apparent during a cold snap in January when several Midwesterners died due to exposure. One man, a St. Paul North End resident, was found dead outside of his home, his walker at his side. It is believed he fell while trying to get into his home.
In rural Polk County, Iowa, a man died after he went outside to clear his wheelchair ramp and driveway. The 65-year-old man was found cold and unresponsive, with a shovel in his hand and his cell phone in a bag attached to his wheelchair. He was found by two trash collectors when it was 15 degrees below zero. He was taken to a hospital and died there. In Wisconsin, a resident of an assisted living facility froze to death while outside.
Ice, snow and cold bring an array of challenges for health, safety and mobility. Resources are available but finding them can take time and patience. Regardless, your personal safety is worth spending time on. Stay warm inside and stay safe inside and outside with these tips.
If you have not done so already, one of the first things you should do is make sure your cell phone has your emergency contact information programmed in. This will help others find your family and friends. It’s especially important to have this information at hand if you cannot speak. Also, make sure your emergency contact information is updated, with your workplace, care provider or medical personnel. Make sure a trusted friend or neighbor has this information as well. Keep a list by your home phone.
Several information hot lines and Web sites provide a wealth of assistance year-round. The Disability Linkage Line at 1-866-333-2466 is one. The Senior Linkage Line is at 1-800-333-2433. Both can direct callers to an array of resources.
Another excellent general resource is the Greater Twin Cities United Way’s 211 line, which is available in the Twin Cities area. Dialing 211 is a good way to tap into a wide array of health and human services programs. To call from your cell phone, dial 651-291-0211. The toll-free number is 1-800-543-7709.
Many Web sites also offer help year-round, with at least one focused on the winter months. The Web site www.staywarm.mn.gov provides a range of energy and home heating tips. This site provides good information on ways to stay warm while saving energy and holding down home heating costs. It also provides information on home heating safety.
Another great Web site to bookmark is www.Minnesotahelp.info, which is one of the best Web sites for persons of all ages. It has many sub-sections of useful information, including sections for seniors and persons with disabilities.
A good Web site and phone number for persons who speak and read languages other than English is run by ECHO (Emergency Community Health Outreach) Minnesota. ECHO offers health and safety information in Spanish, Hmong, Vietnamese, Lao, Khmer, Somali and English. One facet of ECHO you may have seen it is television programs on Twin Cities or Minnesota Public Television stations. Call ECHO at 651-224-3344 or check its Web site at www.echominnesota.org/
If you live alone, work with an agency that will check on your welfare. Some home health care providers and living at home/block nurse programs do make daily calls to check on people. Some of these services have a fee; others are free.
In some areas the United States Postal Service offers a free program called Carrier Alert. This program allows your mail carrier to contact someone if your mail is not collected for a time. Call your local post office to see if this service is offered in your area. Ways to restructure this program are being considered in the Twin Cities.
If you don’t know your neighbors, now may be the time to get to know them, through a neighborhood block club. Neighbors who know each other can look out for each other.
Some people choose to use medical alert devices, which are worn as necklaces or bracelets. These are used to support help. Prices for these vary greatly. Some are covered through insurance plans. Research these to see if they are an option for you.
When you have to go outdoors make sure your cell phone is charged and ready in the event of an emergency and bundle up! Layer on clothing to guard against frostbite and hypothermia. That’s especially true if health problems prevent you from feeling the impacts of cold weather. Make sure feet, hands and your head are well-protected. Remember that mittens may be bulky but they do more to keep your hands warm than gloves do. Make sure that the layer of clothing closest to your skin is absorbent and can wick moisture away from the body. If clothing does become wet when you are outdoors, get inside and remove wet clothing as quickly as possible.
Remember that consumption of alcoholic beverages can affect how your body responds to the cold. The idea that a shot of alcohol will warm you up just isn’t true. Alcohol can affect good judgment and delay your actions.
Does your community have chore services available? Chore programs provide services, such as shoveling snow or other yard work, for a small fee. In the Twin Cities region many of these are funded through the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging. Check www. tcaging,org or call 651-641-8612. In rural Minnesota, contact your city or county offices to see if any programs are offered in your community. Or see if your neighborhood block club offers shoveling. On some blocks, people chip in to pay someone to shovel or blow the snow for the entire block. Or contact an area middle school or high school and see if there is a young person who does shoveling.
Many of us watch and worry in the winter as we see wheelchair users forced to travel in the street due to unshoveled sidewalks. Or we see people slipping and falling. Falls on ice can cause serious if not fatal injuries. Property owners are responsible for shoveling their sidewalks. In most cities, sidewalks have to be cleared of snow and ice within a set time period after the snow stops falling. In some communities that requirement kicks in after 24 hours. In others, it is 48 hours. Call your city offices about unshoveled sidewalks. You can ask to remain anonymous. Property owners who don’t clear away ice and snow can be fined and assessed the cost of having a city crew clear the snow and ice.