How to stay safe and healthy this winter

The colder months can be tough for disabled and chronically ill people.

Award-winning journalist, author and disabled activist Frances Ryan offers tips to stay safe, warm and healthy at home this winter.

Checking it twice

I don’t want to brag, but every winter I get my boiler checked. As someone who feels the cold easily, it’s sensible to spot any heating problems before they hit (no one wants a boiler suddenly breaking down on a cold Saturday in November).

Get in the routine of having your gas appliances serviced annually and make sure it’s with a Gas Safe Registered engineer. Call 0800 408 5500, or visit the Gas Safe Register website to find a registered engineer. Whilst you’re at it, test your smoke alarm (keep spare batteries) and your carbon monoxide detectors regularly.

In case of emergency

In preparation for possible power cuts, stock up on torches, a battery-powered radio, and spare batteries.

If you have extra support needs, you may be eligible to join the Priority Service Register (PSR), a free service that offers extra energy help including providing temporary cooking and heating appliances if your power goes off. 

Remember you can also call 105 if you lose power (this free call will put you in touch with your electricity network operator who can give you help and advice).

Help with the pennies

Disabled people often face higher energy and fuel bills in the winter than the general public, but help is available.

You might be entitled to government grants such as winter fuel payments (for people over 66), the cold weather payment, or help to insulate your home. There are also energy schemes and charitable grants available. Check out Turn2Us to see if you’re eligible.

Get toastie

It’s also worth exploring other ways of heating your home, such as putting a draft excluder under doors and closing curtains to keep the heat in. Or get a smart meter installed so that the heating is only on when you need it.

If, like me, your disability means you can’t move around much, you probably have to think about the clothes you’re wearing too. We stay warmest by heating our core – if in doubt, put another jumper on – but keep your extremities cosy too. My best use of a fiver last winter was some fingerless gloves from Amazon. I also warm my feet on an electric heating pad, though do make sure to wear socks for safety.

As money saving expert Martin Lewis says, it’s cheaper to “heat the person, not the home.” I personally do both.

A couple sitting together under blankets on the sofa

Nutritious and delicious

As winter bugs spread, our immune systems have extra work to do. Despite what those Instagram ads promise, our immunity can’t be boosted by a single food or magic set of pills. The best thing to do is focus on getting nutrients through a healthy and varied diet, including:

  • fruits and vegetables
  • nuts and seeds
  • wholegrains
  • dairy products or fortified alternatives
  • meat, fish or plant proteins such as pulses

If you’re disabled, though, it’s not always easy to cook or eat the right meals. If you struggle to get enough fruit and veg, try taking a Vitamin C tablet through the winter.

Vitamin D is the one benefit we don’t get from our diet – it’s mainly produced by exposure to sunlight. That means it’s useful to take a daily 10-microgram supplement in the gloomier months – especially if your disability means you don’t get outdoors as much as you’d like. I take a supplement all year round.

If you start to feel particularly tired, ask your GP for a blood test to check that you’re not deficient in Vitamin D, iron or B12.

Vaccine season

Winter brings some exciting events, such as Halloween, Christmas – and vaccines.

If you have certain health conditions or live with someone with lowered immunity, you could be eligible for a free flu jab. Check the NHS website to see if you’re eligible. If you’re not, you can still buy a flu vaccine privately from your local pharmacy for around £20.

The COVID-19 booster programme is also currently running. Check out the NHS website to see if you’re eligible. Your GP surgery may be running flu and COVID-19 jabs at the same time, so it’s worth checking for a 2-for-1 offer on immunity.

Mental health matters too

With shorter days and rubbish weather, it isn’t just our physical health that can suffer in the winter but mental health too. If you’re struggling with lack of sunlight, try sitting with a light box which can help improve mood.

If your health means you have to spend more time indoors in the winter, plan for how you’ll stay connected: inviting loved ones to yours, talking to friends online, or saving boxsets to snuggle up with. Talk to your GP if you need to. If in doubt, be kind to yourself.

Further reading

Additional support at home

The Priority Services Register (PSR) is an important, free support service which is designed to support those who need a little extra help in the event of interruptions to their gas, water or electricity supply. If you or someone you know has extra communication, access or safety needs, signing up to the PSR will help ensure you or they can access the best possible services at all times, and feel safe and independent at home. 

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