At 76 years old, I love walking and hiking. But an ice storm forced me to face my body’s limits


This first-person chronicle is the experience of Isobel Cunningham, who lives in Montreal. For more information on CBC’s first-person stories, please see the FAQ.

When I opened the door of my small condo building to go to the gym, I saw tree branches covered in ice and the sidewalk stretched out like a narrow, endless skating rink.

At 76 years old, 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 reaching my daily goal of 10,000 steps.

I put on a pair of boots with built-in crampons, armed myself with one of my trusty hiking poles, and dove into the thick crust covering the snow. It reminded me of the icing on a cake.

I managed to get halfway to the boulevard where I had hoped to catch a bus when suddenly my boot didn’t break through the crust.

Instead, I slipped on the icy surface for a terrifying moment, then recovered and assessed the situation. Was it possible that my daily routine had become a dangerous endeavor?

At that moment I realized I was afraid to walk to the corner.

Snow covered with a thick crust of ice.
Cunningham’s trip to the gym was cut short after she realized she couldn’t safely traverse the thick, slippery crust covering the snow in January. (Submitted by Isobel Cunningham)

Me, an elderly person who, not so long ago traveled the nearly 800 kilometers of the Camino de Santiago in Spain – sleeping in shared dorms and leaving in the pitch darkness of early morning to get a head start on long days of walking solo – I was afraid to walk to the end of my street.

Caution overcame my usually stubborn nature that day and I returned home.

But as I put the key in the lock of my door, unexpected tears welled up in my eyes.

A feeling of physical fragility invades me. It was strange, unfamiliar, and something I wasn’t ready to face yet.

Anxiety of aging

The following days presented challenges, both material and mental.

Confined at home with a depleting supply of milk and bread, my mind began to race from one sad idea to another.

Just walking down the street, at my age, posed a risk that could cause me to suffer a fracture or worse. What if I could never go out in winter again without asking for help?

I hate asking people for favors. Others have their own concerns and duties. Why should they take care of me? And given my long career as a teacher and social service provider, it felt strange and almost foreign to ask for help.

This forced isolation made me realize that I am not young anymore, something I had never really felt before given my active lifestyle.

I tried to block out my depressing thoughts with excessive amounts of half-watched Netflix movies and endless scrolling on Facebook. Finally, I turned off the devices in disgust. Was this what they called cabin fever?

On the third day, stuck at home, the sidewalks still icy, I ran out of milk and bread. I was dying for a cup of latte. I tried to imagine what hundreds or thousands of other older people like me were doing to solve similar problems.

Depressed, I turned to my phone. That’s when I discovered it was on silent.

The device lit up with a flurry of text and voice messages from various friends and a grandchild who were worried about me.

I was touched to see that people were thinking of me, hoping that I was okay. I returned a few calls to reassure my loved ones.

And the truth is: I was fine.

Logic tells us that anxiety comes with aging. But logic hides so cleverly when we face unexpected obstacles. This is when courage and ingenuity must be demonstrated.

I searched the internet, found a local grocery store that did grocery deliveries, and with some difficulty, managed to place my order online. There was even a discount code for the first time. Like magic, the groceries were in my kitchen within an hour.

My morale has improved. My panicked fantasies calmed.

This experience has taught me that I can find solutions to my problems if I think about them rather than ruminating on the very real limitations of a frankly elderly woman.

After four days, the temperature rose to just above freezing and the main risk of falling on icy sidewalks temporarily disappeared. I took my hiking pole and carefully walked to the gym. I returned home tired but triumphant.

It seems like 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 difficult at this age and yet it is vital if I am to survive and thrive – although I find changing my self-image much more difficult than placing an online food delivery order.

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