For those who have experienced a loss of mobility and independence, the Cycling Without Age (CWA) program can help beat the social isolation, loneliness and depression that can come with physical limitations.
It engages older Canadians and those who are less abled by offering free bike rides in specially designed trishaws. The volunteer organization originated in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2012 with five bikes and is now in over 40 countries around the world, including Canada. Trishaws, a hybrid of a bicycle and a rickshaw, seat two passengers in the front and a pilot in the rear.
The program provides older Canadians with opportunities to connect with their communities and experience life outside of their homes. “It gives them wind in their hair, the ability to connect with nature, and the chance to share their stories,” says Jane Hu, who is captain of the Cycling without Age chapter in Canmore, Alberta.
CWA first came to New Brunswick in 2015 when Cindy Donovan, the CEO of Loch Lomand Villa, a long-term care facility, learned about it in Copenhagen. She wanted to bring bikes to residents living in her care home in Canada. The program quickly spread to Ottawa, Canmore, Alberta and Victoria, B.C. There are now 19 active chapters across the country.
Each chapter has its own personality. In Camrose, Alberta, the local library purchased trishaw bikes and made them available to anyone can come check them out like they would with a book. In other places, such as St. John, Newfoundland, the bikes may belong to a care centre.
Hu is an executive coach who first learned about the organization through working with someone who was launching a chapter of CWA in Banff. She helps start-up companies grow and is happy to apply her expertise to growing the program. She is also a volunteer “pilot.” Pilots peddle the trishaws, which are battery-assisted, and usually take two participants with them each trip, giving them a chance to strike up a conversation.
“I drive an hour to Canmore once a week, ride an hour, then drive an hour back,” Hu explains. “It’s that rewarding.” At the care home where Hu volunteers, residents sign up for hour-long rides. There are usually four to six rides a day, five days a week. “Every day is an adventure,” she says. Being in natural surroundings nurture participants’ wellbeing.
Hu recalls an unforgettable experience with an older gentleman named Mike, who lived in Brantford, Ont., most of his adult life. After his wife passed away, he moved to a care home in Canmore to be closer to his son. Hu explains Mike is quite social and can get around, but, because of dementia, becomes lost easily. “One of the massive benefits our program offers is getting familiar and comfortable with their neighbourhood,” she says. To help orientate Mike, he was taken on the same route multiple times. He had a big impact on Hu: “It really made me stop and appreciate how disorientated some people might feel.”
Another massive benefit the program offers is increasing a sense of belonging with local communities. “People don’t make eye contact with someone in a walker or wheelchair,” says Hu. “But, while riding in a trishaw, people will stop cutting their grass and engage in conversation.” It’s not uncommon for dog owners to stop and chat which might result in a dog sitting on a passenger’s lap. “Now they’re getting the comfort of an animal as well as that from talking to another person.”
But it’s not just other adults who engage with seniors. Hu says in Canmore she’ll often see little kids riding their bikes who want to show them off to the trishaw passengers. “’You’ve got a bike? I’ve got a bike!’” they say. “Now you’ve got this intergenerational span that is just phenomenal. It brings a happiness to everyone,” Hu notes.
As for the benefits for older Canadians who participate in the program, Hu sees an increase in appetite, better sleep and those with dementia feel less agitated. “The overall mood in the care centre has gone up.”
One growing demographic for CWA volunteers is Canadians aged 50 and up. If you’re thinking about volunteering, don’t worry. You don’t need to have completed the Tour de France to participate. The bikes are battery-assisted and all you need is an average fitness level and a willingness to give your time. “It has really given some of the early retirees purpose and meaning after they’ve retired,” she says.
Volunteers learn to appreciate older members of their community, the importance of staying healthy and appreciate small moments of joy. One day, a trishaw passenger asked Hu to stop cycling so she could admire the beauty of dandelions. “We stopped and picked a dandelion together,” remembers Hu. Her passenger said she hadn’t picked one since she was five years old. Such a simple gesture meant so much.
“Your heart just grows every single ride you show up,” says Hu.