January 14, 2020

Cycling Without Age: Can a Little Bike Ride Change the World?

By Cycling Without Age Southgate Senior Living 

Much has been said and written about providing adequate care for our seniors. Despite the best efforts, many of them will experience loneliness and isolation due to their age, limited mobility, and frail conditions. It’s been proven that daily outings improve not only the physical but also the mental health of seniors because they get to socialize and are shaken out of their often daily routines. What can be done when the mind is willing, but the body can’t keep up?

Let me tell you an inspiring story. Ole Kassow bicycled to work in Copenhagen every day because he loved cycling. One morning, he noticed in front of a nursing home an old man sitting in a sunny spot with his walker next to him. He saw him every morning for the next two weeks as he rode to work. Ole thought that the old man must miss the freedom and joy of cycling. 

One fine morning in 2012, Ole showed up at the nursing home with a rented rickshaw, a cargo tricycle that has a passenger compartment located in front of the cyclist. As he entered the nursing home, he was approached by a friendly looking member of the staff. He said, “I am a neighbor. I’m here to offer rides to the residents.” The lady said, “That’s a great idea; let me just check.” Then she disappeared into the coffee room. She reappeared two minutes later with an old lady under her arm and said, “Gertrude and I would love a ride.” Ole asked where they wanted to go, and Gertrude’s reply was prompt. She wanted to go to the boardwalk on the harbor front.

On their ride, Gertrude recalled how she had lived in Greenland for a number of years with her husband after the war. The ships from Greenland had docked in this area, and it was very special to her. They shared stories and had a wonderful time. After a ride of about an hour, Ole felt like he had an almost magical bond with this stranger. It almost felt like he had been through a time journey with her. After dropping her off, he left in a rare spirit.

The next day, he got a phone call from the manager of the nursing home. She wanted to know what he had done to Gertrude and quickly added, “Now, all of the residents want to go for a ride, too.”

Cycling Without Age Is Born

Ole began giving rides in a rented rickshaw in his spare time. He made a lot of unlikely friends and felt like an explorer in uncharted territory. At first, there were remarkable changes in the seniors that got to be taken out on a ride in the trishaw. They returned invigorated, talkative, and more willing to spend less time in bed and more time outside. Ole decided that all these adventures were just far too good not to be shared. So, he wrote to the city of Copenhagen, explaining what he was doing and sending several pictures. Much to his surprise, he received a call from a lady at the city who said that this was exactly the kind of active citizenship they were trying to encourage. She asked if he would like five rickshaws instead of just one. He said you bet! And Cycling Without Age (CWA) was born. It wasn’t long before Cycling Without Age was spreading to other cities in Denmark, and in subsequent years, it spread throughout the world and to St. George, Utah.

Benefits for Passengers

The feedback they got as the program grew was absolutely amazing. They heard back that people who hadn’t been talking for years had started talking again. People suffering from dementia would lose their aggression and would actually lift the spirits of the nursing home residents upon returning from their bike rides. A daughter who had taken a ride with her father said upon returning, “Dad, your smiling. That’s the first time I’ve seen you smile since Mom died.” People in wheelchairs came back from rides singing and smiling. And they heard that blind residents where explaining to the volunteers that to them, cycling was all about smelling the flowers, hearing the birds, and feeling the wind in their hair. 

When we grow old, we lose the stories in our lives and the witnesses to them. Can you imagine not having anyone around anymore who has experienced what you have experienced? Can you imagine not having anyone to laugh or cry with? Imagine all your stories disappearing with you. Elderly people have so many stories to tell that will be forgotten if we don’t reach out and listen to them. CWA provides the opportunity and setting to share and listen to stories and build relationships.

CWA provides passengers with a new sense of purpose and freedom. It provides them with opportunities to get out in nature, to socialize, and to build relationships across generations. It has a positive physical, psychological, and social impact. It permeates through residences, raises morale, and creates new stories, new friendships, and new hope. For the elderly, CWA helps them break free from social isolation, makes them smile, brings back their memories, and lets them feel a part of society again, thereby renewing their appetite for life itself. It gives them the right to have wind in their hair.

Benefits for Pilots (Cyclists)

For the volunteer pilots, CWA is far more about active citizenship than much of traditional volunteerism. It’s more like people getting together because they want to make a difference and because they know this will build and strengthen relationships. Younger volunteers have created bonds with older individuals and with couples that they now consider to be their new grandparents. Volunteers come from all walks of life, bringing their own experiences and stories. They get a great deal of satisfaction giving back to their community and serving the senior and less-abled population. They build relationships, strengthen community bonds, build trust and happiness, and improve their quality of life. And they get some good exercise and great experiences along the way!

Benefits for Communities

Cycling Without Age enriches the community as a whole by:

  • closing the intergenerational gap.
  • bringing people together, promoting social change and cohesion, and improving trust within the community.
  • providing a feeling of purposefulness and empowerment.
  • encouraging individuals to play their part as members of an active, supportive, cohesive, and outward-looking society.
  • simply bringing hope, joy, and purpose to life.

The Grey Escape

Because Cycling Without Age had seen that short rides of only a half hour to one hour in duration had been very positive for the elderly passengers, they wanted to take it to the next level. In June 2016, an expedition set out from Ronde, Denmark, to Arendal, Norway, a four-day journey and a distance of over 250 kilometers. The expedition included seventeen elderly people in ten trishaw bicycles and about twenty volunteer pilots and various other bicycles. Along the way, CWA’s entourage of passengers and pilots travelled through the countryside, stopping to see horses and ride ferries across waterways. They stopped in hotels at night, dined together, and even danced. For the elderly passengers who spent most of their lives within four walls, the sights, sounds and stimulation of nature and the wind in their hair had wonderful effects. Many new friendships were forged between elderly passengers and the younger volunteers. Crowds gathered in towns to greet them and wave and cheer as they come through. Elderly people said, “We feel young again.” Some of the passengers had never been on vacation or abroad before.

On the trip, they had a bus follow them in which they could store the passengers’ walkers. Amazingly, most forgot they had brought them. People slept without their sleeping pills. One passenger reported, “I’m going to live off this for a long time.” One said she “had not been on holiday for fifteen years, and this was the best holiday she had ever had.” One gentleman said, “It’s heartwarming they are doing this. They have shown us things we’d never have seen sitting back at the nursing home fading away.” Documentary film makers recorded the trip in the heartwarming short film The Grey Escape. This film is available online.

On their web page, you can find the essential explanation of the dream on which the Cycling Without Age project is based:

“We dream of creating a world together in which the access to active citizenship creates happiness among our fellow elderly citizens by providing them with an opportunity to remain an active part of society and the local community. We do that by giving them the right to wind in their hair, the right to experience the city and nature close up from the bicycle, and by giving them an opportunity to tell their stories in the environments where they have lived their lives.”

So, can a little bike ride (or not so little bike ride) change the world? For the elderly with limited mobility and social isolation and for the volunteers generous enough to share their time…absolutely!

 

Cycling Without Age Facts (as of March 2019):

  • Established in 2012 in Copenhagen
  • Represented in forty-two countries
  • 1,643 chapter locations
  • 2,200 trishaws
  • 29,270 trained cycle pilots
  • 114,000 people served
  • Oldest pilot is ninety years old (Jørgen Hass, Denmark)
  • Oldest passengers are 107 years old (Madam Yeo Lu, Singapore, and Dagny Carlsson, Sweden)
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