Reconnecting with your community can be … well … as easy as riding a bike.
At any age.
That’s the philosophy behind Cycling Without Age, an international movement helping to address social isolation that started in 2012 in Copenhagen, Denmark. The movement has spread to 2,700 communities worldwide, including Dryden, Ont., thanks to Carol Gardam, president of District 35 Dryden.
Gardam had seen a news story about Cycling Without Age, so she quickly recognized the trishaw – essentially, a three-wheeled rickshaw that’s an integral part of the organization’s program – parked out front of her father-in-law’s long-term care home when she visited him in Ottawa. “It was such a neat thing to see, and I thought how great for these seniors to be out in nature, in their community,” she says.
Gardam struck up a conversation with the pilot (the name for the volunteers who drive the bikes). And, not long after, she was at an RTOERO meeting and discovered that another RTOERO district had received a Community Grant (formerly Project Service to Others) to purchase a trishaw for their Cycling Without Age chapter. She knew then that she could bring Cycling Without Age to Dryden.
The premise of Cycling Without Age is simple. Volunteers take mostly older adults on bike rides through their communities. They enjoy conversation, fresh air, the wind in their hair … and return home joyful, often with cheeks glistening from happy tears and aching from smiling. The well-being impacts are undeniable for both the volunteers and the passengers.
“The smiles on the pilots’ and riders’ faces speak volumes,” says Gardam. “I think about one passenger who rode with us in the fall fair parade. I t ended in north Dryden, where she had lived most of her life. She and the pilot spent time touring the places where she and her husband grew up, and she came back thrilled beyond anything.”
Chapters across Canada
Community growth by number of chapters:
Programs led by:
13% First Nations, Towns & Cities
35% Community Groups
51% Care Homes
How to start a chapter
Once a Cycling Without Age chapter is up and running, the bike’s visibility in the community and word-of-mouth support help attract volunteers, donors and passengers, but getting there takes some work. Gardam connected first with Cycling Without Age Canada and learned there are many different models for how to organize a chapter. Cycling Without Age is grassroots by design to allow for innovation and community-based solutions.
With the support of the national organization, Gardam and her district team applied for and got a $4,000 RTOERO Community Grant to support the purchase of the $7,500 bike. She connected with the City of Dryden, and the municipality joined as a partner in the project. This let her use the city’s liability insu rance for volunteers and its property and electricity for bike storage and charging (the trishaws are electrically assisted). The local Home Hardware donated the storage shed, and she quickly found volunteer pilots within her network. They continued to fundraise, bought their trishaw and geared up for their inaugural ride in August 2021.
It didn’t take long to find passengers, despite the pandemic: ln 2021, the group trained nine pilots, and 43 riders signed up. They toured the bike to different retirement residences for demonstrations, and word quickly spread. They filled weekly time slots based on their volunteer pilots’ schedules, a model they carried into the 2022 season.
Gardam now has her sights on recruiting high school students as volunteer pilots. She’s thinking strategically about the impact that might have. “I saw staffing shortages within my parents’ residences, especially because of the pandemic. It’s a problem that we may be able to help solve. For younger people to be comfortable a round seniors, they need to be engaging with seniors. And then they might think about going into that field.”
To learn more about starting a Cycling Without Age chapter, or to see ait Canadian chapters, visit cyclingwithoutage.ca. Search “Cycling Without Age Dryden Chapter” on Facebook to follow their journey. For information about RTOERO Community Grants for RTOERO districts, visit rtoero.ca/giving-back/grants.
Finding solutions to social isolation
Innovative, community-based projects are essential to solving complex societal issues like social isolation. That’s why social isolation is a funding stream for RTOERO Foundation grants. Plus, each October, the foundation’s Social Isolation Awareness Month program highlights the issue and offers suggestions on what we can do to prevent and address social isolation in our communities and our own lives.
“Like many others, we’re concerned about the pandemic’s impact on social isolation for older adults in Canada,” says Mike Prentice, executive director of the RTOERO Foundation. “But at the same time, the pandemic has brought awareness to the importance of social engagement and mental health and well-being in general. We’re seeing an outpouring of support and interest from RTOERO members and our other donors – people want to be part of the solution.” Learn more about the foundation’s social isolation awareness activities at rtoero.ca/rtoero-foundation.
Cycling Without Age Dryden is one of more than 96 chapters across Canada. Chapters are run out of care homes, by community groups or by municipalities and First Nations. Jane Hu is the executive director of Cycling Without Age Canada and helps communities and organizations set up chapters. “As awesome as it is that we are getting seniors back outside, what’s truly magical is how they re-engage and reconnect in the community,” she says.