By Teddy Katz
While many older adults were cooped up inside and worried about the virus, 91-year-old Susan Hu had one of her best years in decades. Hu reconnected with both her family and nature in 2020 thanks to a global program called Cycling Without Age.
As a member of an innovative cycling program now in more than 50 countries, Susan Hu donned a mask and got into the front basket of a three-wheeled electric bicycle. Piloting the trishaw, one of Hu’s grandchildren was delighted to drive her around Calgary’s verdant parks and trails. “It felt great,” coos Hu. “I felt so free, being able to get outside into the open air and going to wonderful places where I had never been before. I didn’t know we had so many parks. It’s a pretty big city.” And, perhaps best of all, Hu was able to set aside her walker and get a lot closer to her grandchildren in the process.
Life’s better on a bike. Cycling Without Age was started in 2012 in Copenhagen, Denmark with the goal of helping seniors, who might not otherwise have the chance, become active once again. The organization now works with long-term care centres, cities, community groups and private individuals.
Hu’s daughter-in-law, Jane, is the Founder and Executive Director of Cycling Without Age Canada. Citing the importance of giving those with limited mobility a chance to “get back on the bike and let the wind blow through their hair,” Jane says. “It’s really giving a voice back to people like my mother-in-law, who feel they’re often not seen or heard.”
The first chapter in Canada began in Saint John, New Brunswick in 2016. Jake Shillington, a 16-year-old high school student at the time, was the first trishaw pilot in the country. Shillington says he’ll never forget the experience of picking up and riding Kay Best around town. Proud of her native heritage, Kay, who lived in a long-term care facility, used her ride time to reminisce. “When we went on our rides, Kay told stories of her childhood and her father who carved canoes and took her on trips into the bush. “She loved the sounds and the smells, and she’d always be looking up at one familiar tree that welcomed us into the park,” Shillington recounted during his eulogy at Kay’s funeral. “Kay would tell me stories so I came to understand how much those little things in nature meant to her. Our rides helped her reconnect to her culture during a time when she was struggling with health issues.”
“We call it the magic bubble,” says Jane. “There is something fantastic about a bike ride… perhaps because older adults have really fond memories of biking as children. Conversations just come up. It triggers memories and conversations about different events in their lives.”
Come ride with me. The volunteer-run program now operates in 65 communities across Canada and comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. One program in Canrose, Alberta is run out of a library where people can actually check out the bike like a library book. Hu tells me her dream used to be to have one of the bikes in every care centre across Canada. Now she’d like to see them at every library across Canada, so they are accessible to as many people as possible.
The Town of Canmore, Alberta opened Canada’s second chapter and runs a successful program with nearby seniors homes. They also keep a bike at the Town Centre so that it’s available to anyone with limited mobility and a willing volunteer to take them for a ride. Highlights have included connecting the community to native elders and special rides during the pandemic where everyone wore a mask.
Up the mountain. With concerns about the mental health impact of the pandemic lock-down on his mother who lives with multiple sclerosis, Kevin Thompson borrowed one of the trishaws. He was able to take his mother way up the windy mountain road from Banff to Johnston Canyon. The ride took his mom back to the days before her illness and some of the things she loved to do. “Every time I’ve taken my mom out on the bike she’s got just the biggest smile on her face. And she’s much more energized for the next few days as a result,” claims Thompson.
A keen advocate for the program, Thompson believes that “it’s really important for anybody that has the lost the ability to bike or hike on their own to know that Cycling Without Age exists and is accessible for everyone”
The village effect. Award-winning Canadian author and psychologist, Susan Pinker, is part of a group opening the first Cycling Without Age chapter in Quebec in the spring. Cycling Without Age’s Danish founder, Ole Kassow, sought out Pinker after he saw her give a Ted Talk where she talked about the findings from her best-selling book, The Village Effect. In both the book and the talk, Pinker explores how in-person social contact is one of the keys to happiness and health throughout one’s life. She talks about the need for intergenerational contact and the value of interactions with diverse groups of people. Pinker believes that getting out on a trishaw is exactly what social integration is all about. Pinker suggests the pandemic has shown how programs like Cycling Without Age are needed now more than ever. It allows seniors and people with mobility issues to escape from the bricks and mortar that have become their world and see and be seen in the outside world.
Stopping to smell the roses. Although the over 90 trishaws Cycling Without Age Canada currently has in use all have motors, pilots are encouraged to slow down and linger longer to allow something special to happen. It might be looking at gardens, watching children play and noticing new construction or landscaping improvements. Hu says, “We’ll be going through a neighbourhood and we’ll see someone raking leaves who will happily stop what they’re doing and talk to us. People walking dogs will stop, engage in conversation with us and, almost without fail, pick up their dog and set them on the lap of one of our passengers. As much as getting seniors back outside is tremendous, it’s really how they re-engage and reconnect in the community that’s really the ‘special sauce’ of this program.”
Teddy Katz was a CBC sports journalist for 20 years, helped run the press office for the International Paralympic Committee in Rio and will be at the Tokyo 2021 Paralympic Games.