Back in the spin: Seniors relish pedal-powered adventures

October 15, 2019

Cycling programs popular at SSM Health and Benedictine Health continuum-of-care facilities


When the weather is nice, Jean Smith likes to get out and see the sights in her hometown of Baraboo, Wis.

"I've been to the county fair twice," Smith says. "I've been to the river walk here at least three times and last week I went somewhere that I didn't know existed here in Baraboo, an arboretum, and that was really neat."

Cycling Without Age program
SSM Health St. Clare Meadows Care Center residents Gen Meyer, left, and Verna Boll stop for a pumpkin during a September 2017 spin on one of two electric "trishaws" that are used in the center's Cycling Without Age program.
Courtesy SSM Health St. Clare Meadows Care Center

When she goes, the 92-year-old goes in style at the front of one of two three-wheeled rickshaws that the SSM Health St. Clare Meadows Care Center has to ferry her and other residents around town. The care center acquired its first "trishaw" in spring 2017, when it formed a chapter of a program called Cycling Without Age.

Samantha Machovec, director of organizational advancement and activities at St. Clare Meadows, and her colleague Teri Fichter, volunteer coordinator, got the program rolling after hearing about a chapter of Cycling Without Age in Oshkosh, Wis.

The care center bought its first rickshaw and brought the founder of the program to Baraboo from Denmark to launch its chapter through a donation from the family of a woman who had spent many years working at what is now SSM Health St. Clare Hospital in Baraboo. The rides were so popular the St. Clare Foundation, the hospital's charitable arm, funded the purchase of a second cycle later that same year. The cycles range in cost from $7,500-$9,500.

On the town
Machovec says the rides have transforming effects on residents. "So many of our residents are in wheelchairs and when you get on the bike, the wheelchair, the cane, the walker, any of that equipment is gone," she says. "You see people open up in a way that you might not see otherwise."

Cycling Without Age program
Benedictine Living Community resident Marie Anderson and wellness aide Katrina Prestegord enjoy an afternoon ride this summer in Ada, Minn.
Courtesy Benedictine Living Community of Ada

The residents greet and chat with people out on the streets and those people most often respond in kind to the friendly overtures. "It changes how people look at our residents when we're in the community on the bike," Machovec says. Instead of seeing an elderly and perhaps frail care center resident, she says, the community sees a lively and active senior.

Kelly Talcott is the U.S. captain for the nonprofit Cycling Without Age. He says the reaction that residents of St. Clare Meadows get is exactly what the program's founder was hoping for. One of the program's guiding principles is that people should be out in their local community no matter their age.

"You take people who are sometimes forgotten, and they go out and they feel important, they feel noticed, they feel welcome," Talcott says. "That's a great feeling to share and to be part of."

Putting passengers in front
To officially be part of Cycling Without Age, chapters must purchase cycles that have been reviewed and approved by the program. Those cycles were specially designed to promote the program's mission. The front of the cycles has a seating compartment with room for two adult passengers. The seat for the "pilot" who does the pedaling is in the back.

"We quite literally say we put our passengers first," Talcott says. "They are the first ones you see. They become approachable, they become visible, they reconnect with the community. It's about a lot more than just giving nice people rides outside. It's really about creating and strengthening and developing connections with your community."

Talcott says he connected with the program while visiting his daughter, who lives in Copenhagen. He was coaxed by Cycling Without Age founder Ole Kassow, whom he got to know socially, to try piloting a rickshaw. He picked up a woman living at a care center who was from Poland, had run her own business and spoke several languages. The plan was to go across the city to a Polish grocery so the woman could buy some candy. "What was supposed to be a 45-minute ride went for like three and a half, four hours," Talcott recalls. "It was great. She was wonderful."

Connections like that between riders and pilots aren't unusual in the program. In fact, Smith, the St. Clare Meadows resident, has formed a similar bond with Bob Konen, a retired dentist who has been volunteering with the Meadows' chapter in Baraboo since it launched.

Konen calls Smith — one of his most frequent passengers — "a very special lady." "When I first started, I was like, 'What I am going to talk about?' but we're always yakking about something," he says.

Cycling Without Age program
Ole Kassow, founder of Cycling Without Age, gives SSM Health St. Clare Meadows Care Center resident Eunice McCoy and her daughter, Bonnie Braun, a ride at the launch of the care center's chapter of the program on a snowy day in April 2017. McCoy has since died.
Courtesy SSM Health St. Clare Meadows Care Center

The 65-year-old devotes a few hours each week to piloting one of the Meadows' trishaws and takes any Meadows resident who signs up for a spin. Among his other memorable passengers have been a couple celebrating their 70th anniversary, who he cruised over to the home where they used to live and behind home plate of the baseball diamond where the husband used to play. Konen chauffeured a woman celebrating her 100th birthday. She was serenaded at one of the concerts on the square while she sat in the trishaw and gleefully soaked in it.

In addition to the two-person passenger compartment, all of the trishaws have electric motors the pilots can use when they need a power boost. Without them, Konen says it wouldn't be possible to get the trishaw and its human cargo up the hills of Baraboo.

Cycling Without Age program
SSM Health St. Clare Meadows Care Center in Baraboo, Wis., has two electric "trishaws" to take residents on rides like this one on the Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area trail. Volunteers provide the pedal power. The tricycles are part of the center's Cycling Without Age program.
Courtesy SSM Health St. Clare Meadows Care Center

Konen says that while the passengers are the focus, the pilots benefit from the program, too. "It's just fun for me to watch people enjoy themselves," he says.

Movement is growing
Cycling Without Age started in Copenhagen in 2012 and has since spread across the globe, including to more than 40 U.S. states. Talcott says that dozens of chapters started just this year.

Cycling is proving popular at other continuum of care facilities that don't have connections to the Cycling Without Age program too. The Benedictine Living Community of Ada, Minn., a member of the Benedictine Health System, bought a side-by-side tandem electric adult tricycle in July and has a wheelchair-accessible rickshaw on order. Both are built by a Netherlands-based company called Van Raam.

Cassie Visser, wellness director at the care center that has 49 beds and 18 assisted-living apartments, says she was surprised at how quickly the donations rolled in to buy the cycles after she asked. Together, the cycles cost about $21,000.

Even in its infancy, Visser says the cycling program is big hit with residents. "They get to be outside, to have a sense of independence, to exercise, and to do something they never thought they'd get to do again," she says.

The care center plans to keep the cycles in use on the quiet streets of Ada (population 1,620) for outings and appointments while the weather is nice and offer inside rides once cold weather sets in.

In Baraboo, the Meadows has a core group of about a dozen people who volunteer as pilots for its cycles, including Machovec and Fichter, but Machovec says the rides are so popular among the 118 residents who are either getting skilled or assisted-living care that she could always use more pedalers.

Smith is among the residents who never pass up a chance for a spin through town. "I think it's the greatest," she says of the program.

Residents take spins on adaptive cycles at the Benedictine Living Community of Ada, Minn.

Staff at the Benedictine Living Community of Ada, Minn., take the care center’s side-by-side tandem cycle for an indoor spin.

A rider heads down the hall on one of the “trishaws” at SSM Health St. Clare Care Center in Baraboo, Wis.

Cycling Without Age guiding principles

The following values for volunteers who pilot electronically-boosted tricycles in the Cycling Without Age program are reprinted from the organization's website.

Generosity: Cycling Without Age is based on generosity and kindness. It starts with the obvious generous act of taking one or two elderly or less-abled people out on a bike ride. It's a simple act that everyone can do.

Slowness: Slowness allows you to sense the environment, be present in the moment and it allows people you meet along the way to be curious and gain knowledge about Cycling Without Age because you make time to stop and talk.

Storytelling: Elderly people have so many stories that will be forgotten if we don't reach out and listen to them. We tell stories, we listen to stories on the bike and we also document the stories when we share them via word of mouth or on social media.

Relationships: Cycling Without Age is about creating a multitude of new relationships: between generations, among the elderly, between pilots and passengers, nursing homes employees and family members. Relationships build trust, happiness and quality of life.

Without Age: Life unfolds at all ages, young and old, and can be thrilling, fun, sad, beautiful and meaningful. Cycling Without Age is about letting people age in a positive context – fully aware of the opportunities that lie ahead when interacting in their local community.


Copyright © 2019 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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