Keeping active is a huge part of life for 76-year-old Isobel Cunningham. But when an ice storm hit, she was forced to come to terms with her aging body’s limitations and tap into new strengths.
I was always the helper, but perhaps now it’s time for me to ask for help
Isobel Cunningham · for CBC First Person
· Posted: Feb 09, 2024 4:00 AM EST | Last Updated: February 9
Isobel Cunningham, 76, was isolated at home for three days after freezing rain left Montreal’s roads too slick to manoeuvre safely at her age. (Submitted by Isobel Cunningham)This First Person column is the experience of Isobel Cunningham, who lives in Montreal. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
When I opened the door of my small condo building to head to the gym, I saw tree branches coated with ice and the sidewalk stretched out like an endless narrow skating track.
At 76, I still enjoy walking, hiking and taking on different physical challenges, so the unpredictability of a Montreal winter wasn’t going to stop me from hitting my daily goal of 10,000 steps.
I pulled on a pair of boots with built-in crampons, armed myself with one of my trusty hiking poles and plunged into the thick crust covering the snow. It reminded me of icing on a cake.
I managed to get halfway to the boulevard where I had hoped to hop a bus when suddenly, my boot didn’t punch through the crust.
Instead, I slithered on the icy surface for a terrifying moment, then recovered and assessed the situation. Was it possible my daily routine had turned into a dangerous endeavor?
In that moment, I realized I was afraid to walk to the corner.
Cunningham’s journey to the gym was cut short after she came to the realization that she couldn’t safely make it through the thick, slippery crust covering the snow in January. (Submitted by Isobel Cunningham)I, a senior who not so long ago hiked the almost 800 kilometres of the Camino de Santiago in Spain — sleeping in communal dormitories and starting off in the pitch dark of early mornings to get a jump on the long days of solo walking ahead — was scared of walking to the end of my street.
Prudence won over my normally stubborn character that day and I turned back home.
But as I put the key into my door lock, unexpected tears welled up in my eyes.
A feeling of physical fragility swept over me. It was strange, unfamiliar and something I wasn’t yet prepared to face.
Anxiety of agingThe next few days presented challenges — both material and mental.
Confined to my home with a depleting supply of milk and bread, my mind started jumping from one sad idea to the next.
Simply walking down the street at my age was a risk that could land me with a broken bone or worse. What if I could never go out in the winter again without asking for help?
I hate asking people for favours. Others have their own preoccupations and duties. Why should they have to take care of me? And given my long career as a teacher and in social service as the one providing help, it felt odd and almost alien to ask for help.
This forced isolation hammered home the fact that I am no longer young — something I’d never really felt before given my active lifestyle.
I tried to block out my depressing thoughts with an inordinate number of half-watched Netflix films and endless Facebook scrolling. Eventually I turned off the devices in disgust. Was this what they called cabin fever?
By the third day stuck at home, the sidewalks still an icy hazard, I had run out of milk and bread. I was dying for a cup of milky coffee. I tried to imagine what the hundreds or thousands of other seniors like me were doing to solve similar problems.
Want to share your personal story with CBC News? Here’s how Dejected, I turned to my phone. That’s when I discovered it had been on silent.
The device lit up with a slew of text and voice messages from various friends and a grandchild who were concerned about me.
I was touched to see that people were thinking about me, hoping I was OK. I returned a few calls to reassure my dear ones.
And the truth is: I was OK.
Logic tells us anxiety comes with aging. But logic hides so skillfully when we are faced with unexpected barriers. That’s when gumption and ingenuity must be coaxed out.
I searched the internet, found a local grocery store that did grocery deliveries and, with some difficulty, managed to place my online order. There was even a first time discount code. Like magic, the groceries were in my kitchen within the hour.
My spirits lifted. My panicked fantasies were calmed.
That experience taught me I can find solutions to my problems if I put my mind to it rather than ruminating on the very real limitations of a frankly old woman.
After four days, the temperature rose to just above freezing and the main risk of falling on icy sidewalks had temporarily passed. I took my hiking pole and gingerly walked to the gym. I came home tired but triumphant.
It seems it’s now my turn to ask for help when I need it — an idea I’m still working to make peace with.
Change is hard at this age and yet it is vital if I am to survive and thrive — although I’m finding changing my self-image is much harder than placing an online food delivery order.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Isobel Cunningham was born in Wales, but Montreal has been home for most of her life. Her day job, from which she is happily retired, was working as a hospital social service worker at St. Mary’s Hospital. She attended the San Miguel Literary Conference in Mexico three times. She is a member of the Quebec Writers’ Federation and the Writers’ Union of Canada, and is working on her first novel, a fantasy set in post-Roman Britain.