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Why I Dread the Winter Weather as a Power Wheelchair User

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It’s the beginning of winter again already, and summer feels like a memory. The days are grey and chilly here in Vancouver, BC, and there is a moistness in the air — a foreshadowing of what’s to come. Soon, the periodic showers will become a near-constant rain, often accompanied by a biting wind and a bone-deep chill, punctuated by storms that tip over garbage bins and litter the streets with twigs and branches. The nights will be long and the days will be awash in various shades of grey. I hate this time of year. For the next six months, my freedom will be limited, my dependence on others will increase, and my mental health will be impacted.

Since my ability to stand and walk is limited, I use a power wheelchair. Navigating the world in a wheelchair is often challenging as it is, and the poor winter weather only exacerbates that. In the rain, I must take care to keep my wheelchair’s electrical components and seating dry, and not allow the motors to get too wet. When it snows, I am basically trapped at home until the snow melts. I can never be certain if all the sidewalks have been cleared (wide enough for a wheelchair). Fortunately, the rain often washes away the snow fairly quickly. However, if it freezes overnight, the leftover snow turns to ice and becomes impossible to travel on. Traveling outdoors in the winter is far less safe and I am always anxious and hyper-vigilant, worrying about drivers not seeing me, or patches of ice or debris in my path.

In order to stay warm and dry, I must bundle up and shield myself against the icy wind and rain. Due to the limited range of motion in my arms and shoulders, I require help to don first the jacket and blanket for warmth, then the rain chaps and plastic poncho. (As a power wheelchair user, finding warm, waterproof outwear that is reasonably priced and fits comfortably is a challenging endeavor!)

Once inside these layers and secured with my seatbelt, I am stuck in my wheelchair until someone can help me get out of them. Depending on who I encounter at the end of my journey, this can be a quick and easy experience, or it can be fraught with discomfort, frustration, and even embarrassment. Until I am able to remove my outerwear, I often feel quite claustrophobic and vulnerable, especially since the bulky layers limit my range of motion further, and the wind can sometimes blow my poncho up into my face. The extra tension and anxiety exacerbate my abdominal spasticity, and I fatigue more quickly. The cold dampness stiffens my joints and increases the chronic pain emanating from various areas in my body. I spend much more time at home as a result, unable (or unwilling) to cope with the effort and added discomfort of traveling outdoors.

By December, my mental health will be impacted. The loss of freedom and independence, as well as the increase in isolation will begin to frustrate and sadden me. This, coupled with the wet and grey weather, will exacerbate my OCD and invite depression to settle in for the rest of the season. I have already begun taking an increased dose of my antidepressant in preparation for this inevitability. It won’t prevent a mental health dive, but it will smooth out the edges so I’m more equipped to cope with it until spring returns with the sunshine and warmth.

Every year, around this time, I experience anxiety about the coming months. I know I’m not the only one who dreads this time of year. For many people, winter is a challenging season, physically, mentally, and emotionally. The best way I know how to cope is to be prepared with the items, clothing, and coping tools that will help me navigate through the season. When I’m frustrated or can’t find a solution, I seek the advice of others who have struggled with the same issues. Who better to understand the struggle, and to know the tricks and tips of managing the challenges of winter living than our peers? So, if you have any advice or links to products you have found helpful, please share them below. (I, for one, am still searching for the perfect winter outerwear for a power wheelchair user!)

Getty image by Rolando Gomez.

Originally published: November 5, 2021
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