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Elizabeth Renzetti

Elizabeth Renzetti

ELIZABETH RENZETTI

For some Canadians, a prison of ice and snow Add to ...

As the snow swirls and the wind cuts through even the fanciest parka, a new greeting has replaced “Hello” on our streets: “Remind me why we live here?”

The many wonders and joys of this land are lost when you’re shovelling for the 100th time and cursing the decision to own a dog. Living in Canada this winter is the equivalent of being trapped in an ice palace, minus the handsome prince and cozy fur throws.

I’m not talking to you, British Columbia, with your sunshine and spring blossoms. In fact I’m not talking to you ever again. The rest of the country has suffered: The Atlantic provinces are buried under such nasty drifts that the Nova Scotia RCMP issued an arrest warrant for “Old Man Winter.” A Prince Edward Island man who was driven by cabin fever to dig a tunnel to his car became a YouTube sensation. Toronto has suffered its coldest February on record.

It’s a minor irritation for most of us, a season of vintage whine, and we forget that winter pretty much means house arrest for a significant group of Canadians. With spring (allegedly) around the corner, it’s worth sparing a thought for elderly and disabled people, those hit hardest by winter – and those without the luxury of complaining to neighbours, because they’re frequently stuck inside.

The cold can be lethal if you have mobility issues. Consider the case of wheelchair user Mark Stroz, who was found dead, face-down outside his Toronto home on a bitterly cold morning last month. A cab had dropped him off the night before.

Miriam Faibish, a reader with whom I share a lively correspondence, told me that she hasn’t left her North Toronto apartment in five weeks, apart from a weekly grocery run with her daughter. Miriam is 85 and had a bad fall on the subway last year, which has made her cautious. She walks the halls of her building for exercise.

For years, Ms. Faibish badgered her local councillor to have the city-owned sidewalk near her building shovelled, to no effect. Now the residents have banded together to have it done privately, but the streets are still treacherous. She recently requested that a cab driver help her into the taxi, but he refused. It’s easier not to go out, although the effects of such enforced isolation are excruciating. “When you’re not outside for so many days, even if you’re normally quite a joyful and positive person, it’s hard on your mind,” she says.

Researchers know what happens to people who are shut in for months at a time – their muscles lose conditioning, nutrition levels suffer and they can become depressed. “We’ve got a lot of people falling, and some lose their independent mobility,” says Geoff Fernie, director of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and its WinterLab research facility. “Others may be afraid to go out at all. It’s a hugely underestimated problem.”

I visited Dr. Fernie and his colleague Yue Li at WinterLab, where they were testing winter footwear for safety properties. By next year, they hope to have developed a labelling system for consumers to tell at a glance how suitable a pair of boots is for walking on a particular slope. I watched a harnessed research assistant slide along the icy floor of the WinterLab, which is essentially a frosty cube that can be hydraulically adjusted to mimic different gradients.

Even a gentle three-degree slope had the assistant slipping, and she was young, fit and wearing top-of-the-line boots. As Dr. Li pointed out, most sloping curbs at intersections have a five-to-seven degree grade. A person with limited sight, a person using a cane or even just someone racing to beat a light is a casualty waiting to happen. The most treacherous surface, by the way, is dry ice covered with a light dusting of snow; if you have to fall, try to fall forward, not back.

Every winter, “there are 20,000 emergency-room visits due to falls in Ontario alone,” Dr. Li says. The number of falls increase by 20 to 60 per cent in the snowy season. For some, mainly older people, those falls will be catastrophic and life-shortening. It’s amazing, when you think about it, how little attention winter safety gets: We’re told to put on our snow tires, and that’s about it.

Everyone’s looking forward to better weather, which should be here by mid-June. For some people, it will be more than a relief – it will be a Get Out of Jail card.

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Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

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