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Cycling at any age

22.11.2019

What if true happiness came from simple pleasures like feeling the wind in your hair? Volunteers from Cycling Without Age certainly think so! For seven years, the Danish nonprofit organization has been enabling the elderly to enjoy the fresh air from a trishaw.

The emotional isolation that comes with aging

According to a study conducted by Thierry Gaillarda, lead physician at the Center for the Assessment of Psychiatric Disorders and Aging at Paris’ Saint‑Anne Hospital, 40% of elderly people in nursing homes suffer from depression. This pathological mood disorder translates into an extended state of sadness and a loss of interest in most activities. Emotional isolation is the most common cause of depression.

A Scandinavian solution

In 2012, Ole Kassow from Copenhagen went to his local nursing home with a trishaw he rented specially for the occasion. The cycling enthusiast wanted to end isolation for people with reduced mobility, and so he offered bike rides to those unable to walk. His first passenger was Gertrude, an elderly woman who dreamed of rediscovering the port where seafarers once departed for Greenland. For an hour, on their journey back in time, Gertrude revived old memories while Ole pedaled. When the ninety-something rider returned to the nursing home, she was transformed, smiling and happy. It didn’t take long for the other pensioners to claim their own breath of fresh air. The effects were so positive that the staff at the nursing home couldn’t quite believe their eyes. The residents’ mood significantly improved, as did their health. Ole quickly got in touch with Dorthe Pedersen, a civil society consultant for the City of Copenhagen, and he convinced her of the project’s usefulness. Together, they bought five trishaws and launched Cycling Without Age, which quickly spread to all corners of Denmark.

Feeling the wind in your hair

In Denmark, 62% of Copenhagen’s residents choose the bicycle as their daily mode of transportation. It’s a country where cycling is more of a second nature than a sport. In France, even though cycling bikes were overtaken by cars in the 1950s as the main mode of transportation, all children still learn to keep their balance on two wheels. And that’s quite a good thing, explains Vibeke Koushede, a researcher at the Danish National Institute of Public Health, as the stimuli acting on elderly people while on a trishaw bring back memories of their working lives or childhood. The benefits are immediate. Some patients with dementia become more calm, and some are even able to speak again. Because Cycling Without Age’s strength lies in offering an activity that builds bridges between generations and creates contact with nature.

Budgets more or less on the brakes

The specially adapted trishaw bikes cost around €5,000, and in Denmark, it’s the municipalities that buy them and lend them to nursing homes. In France, it’s hard to imagine nursing homes having enough money to afford one of these cruisers, but corporate philanthropy could be a way around that. In any case, Cycling Without Age is now up and running in more than 42 countries, including in France, through A vélo sans âge. In total, there are more than 29,000 volunteers and a fleet of 2,200 vehicles equipped with electric motors. More than 100,000 passengers have used the service since the adventure began.

They say you never forget how to ride a bike, and sometimes all you need is a miracle to feel the wind in your hair once again.

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