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A Winter Prep List for Snowbirds Staying Home This Year

Snow removal, car maintenance, heating bills may come as a surprise

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Usually when winter blows in, flocks of retirees head to warmer climates like Arizona and Florida. But this year, many are opting to stay home and brave icy temperatures instead of traveling south, due to concerns about contracting COVID-19.

While most tourism bureaus don't track winter residents who spend one to six months in a sunshine state, overall travel to traditional snowbird destinations has dropped dramatically since 2019. Air travel to Arizona is down by 52 percent in 2020, while Florida is seeing one-third fewer visitors.

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For the past 10 years, Robert Lewy, 75, a retired physician in Blauvelt, New York, and his wife, Barbara, 73, have rented a house in Naples, Florida for the month of February. But this year, they canceled their sun-soaked holiday. Lewy and his wife weren't comfortable going through an airport and flying and have heard that many people in Florida aren't taking social distancing precautions seriously.

"We decided not to go because of COVID,” he says. “We're both healthy and active — we play tennis, go to the beach and ride bikes — but we were worried about traveling.”

If you plan on reaching for your snow boots instead of your swimsuit this year for the first time in a long while, here's how to deal with winter.

Gather the proper winter gear

spinner image Robert and Barbara Lewy, on the beach in Naples, Florida.
Robert and Barbara Lewy, on the beach in Naples, Florida.
Courtesy of Robert and Barbara Lewy

As long as you're dressed warmly, you can enjoy plenty of outdoor activities during the winter. But if your boots are circa 1998 and you can't find a matching pair of insulated gloves, maybe it's time to invest in some appropriate layers for the coming season. Do an inventory of your winter gear and make sure you have the necessary jackets, scarves and hats.

"We've increased our supply of winter clothes — we bought long underwear and warm socks,” Lewy says.

Make sure to have good quality, waterproof winter boots that haven't deteriorated with age or lack of use, says Malka Young, 67, a licensed social worker, certified care manager and director of Allies in Aging at JFS Elder Care Solutions in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Natural balance changes as a result of aging, and that can make navigating winter sidewalks and ice challenging, she says. Slip-on cleats or ice crampons can ensure traction on slippery sidewalks, and a lightweight walking stick or trekking pole can provide extra stability.

Think about snow removal

While you may already have a service that clears your sidewalk of snow, even during years that you head to a southern climate, if you're going to be home during the winter you may need to increase your level of service. Make a plan for what you need before it snows.

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Experts say it's best not to take on the job of snow removal yourself. Many older adults mistakenly think they're up to the task, but shoveling heavy snow can trigger heart attacks or stroke.

"People think, ‘That's not going to happen to me. Even though I've been going south for the last five years, I still can shovel.’ But I don't care how active you are — it's an added stress,” Young says.

If you do plan to tackle the shoveling, make sure you have the proper equipment. Invest in a lightweight shovel with an ergonomic handle and wide blade so you can push the snow away. Experts say you should make sure to stay hydrated while shoveling and should use proper shoveling techniques to avoid backaches and muscle strains. Those with snowblowers may want to make sure they've been serviced and are in working order.

And don't forget to stock up on abrasives such as sand, salt, kitty litter or deicers for your balconies, driveways, stairs and walkways. Most deicing products contain chemicals to melt ice, but they can be harmful to pets or your lawn if you apply too much, so sprinkle them sparingly.

Many senior centers will deliver a bucket of sand or salt if you're stuck, Young says.

And don't forget that your heating and electric bills are likely to be higher than when you're away for months at a time.

Prepare your car for winter

In many parts of the country, snowy, icy roads mean there's a need for snow tires.

"In Massachusetts, we had an early warning,” Young says. “It snowed on Halloween, so lots of people have already put on their snow tires but, if not, now's the time to do that.”

If you live in an area where the temperature dips below 35 degrees, all-season tires are not the ideal choice, because the rubber firms up and is no longer flexible enough to grip the road. Snow tires are made from special compounds that stay soft at subfreezing temperatures, allowing the tires to grip the road. For heavy snow or ice, some drivers add chains to their tires. The laws permitting chains vary from state to state, so check the American Automobile Association's list to see if your state allows them.

Make sure your car maintenance is up to date, and that your vehicle is stocked with emergency supplies, such as a blanket, snacks, water, a shovel, a flashlight, gloves and a hat, a snow scraper brush and a battery-booster pack. The AAA's website offers lots of resources and safe winter driving tips.

Plan to stay in touch with other snowbirds

Those who regularly head south for the winter may miss the social circle they see annually.

Thankfully, technology such as video calls has made it easier to maintain friendships during the pandemic. Reach out to the people you would normally see during the winter months, whether that's by phone, email, video chat or letters.

Leah Silber of Brooklyn, New York, is in her early 80s and has decided to skip her annual trip south to her condo in Boca Raton, Florida. Silber usually flies down a couple of times a year, and says she'll really miss time spent at the pool with friends, shopping and evening entertainment at her gated community's clubhouse.

"The winters are getting to me. I'm young, but my bones are old,” she laughs. “But I'm not going because of the pandemic — I'm just not comfortable sitting on the plane with people, or sitting in an Uber."

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