Outside the senior home, Sister Rosalind Gefre ditched her walker for a bicycle ride — without having to pedal at all.
At 89, the nun can’t bike like she used to, but a new program is helping her and other older adults with limited mobility experience again the thrill of bicycling around St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Wearing a sweater over her black and white habit, Gefre sat in the passenger seat of a trishaw, an electric-assisted bike similar to a pedicab, as she chatted and laughed nonstop with 86-year-old Sister Susan Smith. While Anthony Desnick, 65, of St. Paul pedaled behind them, the women reminisced about life in the convent and marveled at the stately homes along the Mississippi River and the gushing Minnehaha Falls.
“Your whole attitude changes,” said Gefre, who saw parts of St. Paul she had never visited before on the hourlong ride. “You see the world.”
This year, more nursing homes, assisted living and other senior care buildings across Minnesota — from Rochester to Fergus Falls — are starting the program, Cycling Without Age. Since it began in 2012 in the bike-centric city of Copenhagen, the program has spread to more than 40 countries.
It’s more than just a free bike ride, though. The program is touted as a way to make a difference for older adults, alleviating the epidemic of loneliness through a social outing outdoors.
“Everybody gets the joy of riding a bicycle,” said Desnick, who began the nonprofit Cycling Without Age Twin Cities this year, with bike rides at two St. Paul senior homes. “The movement has grown care center by care center.”
Another 24 facilities will be starting or expanding Cycling Without Age after the state Department of Human Services notified them in early August that they will each receive $6,000 grants — half the cost to buy a Danish trishaw. The grants are backed by a fund from nursing home fines, not taxpayers. Dan Pollock, assistant commissioner for the department’s Continuing Care for Older Adults, said Cycling Without Age is a “promising,” innovative program that can improve quality of life.
In Willmar, Bethesda, the largest rural skilled-nursing facility in Minnesota, will use the state grant to help buy a second trishaw.
Bethesda was approached with the idea of starting Cycling Without Age by ChangeX, a digital platform that helps spread ideas by finding funders and leaders, and started the program in May thanks to funding from the local Chamber of Commerce, a church and the nursing home’s foundation.
“It’s different than pushing someone in a wheelchair,” said Melissa Wentzel, Bethesda’s wellness director. “They can feel the wind in their hair. It’s an experience … just a mood-boosting activity.”
Bethesda, which serves 700 people, shares the trishaw with others in Willmar — from other senior-living homes to the community center’s older adults. Wentzel said the city and nonprofit are fundraising to buy eight more trishaws.
“If Willmar can come together to fund it, why not have everyone use it?” she said.
In Fergus Falls, Pioneer Care, which has a range of housing options for about 200 residents, will soon start up Cycling Without Age with two trishaws from the state grant and local funding. Steve Guttormson, the marketing and development director, said it gives residents another option to be active outside “at a time when they lose other choices.”
Pedal Fergus Falls, a cycling advocacy group, had the idea for the program and is organizing trained volunteers to pilot the bikes.
“The bike is hard to miss and definitely different than anything else you see rolling down the street here,” said Jake Krohn of Pedal Fergus Falls, adding that he hopes the three-wheeled bikes increase awareness both of cycling and of older adults, seeing “them as a population deserving of attention and admiration.”
In Rochester, Samaritan Bethany also received the state grant and is collecting private donations in hopes of buying two or three trishaws this fall. Dean Stenehjem, who leads the nonprofit’s foundation, said many of the 300 residents are from Rochester and could ride through their former neighborhoods as they share their life story with volunteers.
“It connects them to the community,” he said. “It’s kind of a novelty.”
In the Twin Cities, the Minnesota Veterans Home in Minneapolis was one of the first in the state to start Cycling Without Age last fall with funding from a Bloomington nonprofit, Stratis Health.
Staff and volunteers pilot two trishaws almost every weekday at the home, which has more than 300 nursing residents and vets who visit the adult day center. “I think it takes them out of … their ordinary routine,” coordinator Erin Betlock said.
Plan to rotate bikes
While most programs start when a center buys its own trishaw, Desnick is modeling the Twin Cities chapter after the Nice Ride bike system, rotating a trishaw among senior homes. The trishaw, fully funded with $12,000 from AARP Minnesota, is piloted by Desnick and nine volunteers — from retirees to a grad student. His goal is to expand the chapter to 10 bikes shared among 30 facilities with 300 volunteers.
While nursing homes and assisted living centers often have activities, Desnick said Cycling Without Age differs because it boosts intergenerational relationships.
“It’s just incredibly rewarding,” said Desnick, who had a short-lived retirement after a career as an architect before starting the nonprofit this year; he also works as development director for the global Cycling Without Age organization when he’s not piloting the bicycles himself.
On an 80-degree summer day, he pedaled the bicycle as Gefre and Smith chatted. When they glided over a speed bump in the road, the two women lifted their arms above their heads like they were on a roller coaster and waved to passersby as if they were celebrities on a parade float.
“They take you all over and we visit the whole time,” Smith said. “I love to go see new places, and I love the outdoors. I think it’s crazy people aren’t lined up out the door to go.”
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