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Generations come together, one bike ride at a time

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Generations come together, one bike ride at a time

Kelly Salance

There’s something liberating and peaceful about being able to take in nature from the seat of a bicycle, something Ole Kassow understands quite well. An avid cyclist, the Copenhagen resident began to wonder: how could a community get seniors with limited mobility back on bikes so they could experience that joy once again?

In 2012 Kassow and Dorthe Pederson decided that they had the answer. They founded Cycling Without Age with the purchase of five trishaws, and since then the nonprofit has spread like wildfire, with chapters springing up in 38 countries, including Singapore. Like its fellow chapters all over the globe, Singapore’s Cycling Without Age’s mission is simple: trained volunteers from local universities and companies such as Zendesk take seniors out for rides in trishaws, giving elders an opportunity to not just be outside but to tell their stories and connect with new people.

It’s a small act of kindness that can go a long way, one that takes only an hour of someone’s time, says Marieke Bink, director of the Singapore chapter. Bink, who oversees 198 volunteers and programs aimed at connecting Singapore’s youths with their elders, spoke recently about the chapter’s plans for the future and how her involvement has changed her life.

 Marieke Bink, Director of Cycling Without Age - Singapore. Illustration by  Chelsea Larsson .

Marieke Bink, Director of Cycling Without Age - Singapore. Illustration by Chelsea Larsson.

How did you get involved in Cycling Without Age?

When I moved from Copenhagen to Singapore, I had worked for 20 years in health care, mostly with seniors. I wanted to get involved with the community, and to do something close to my profession. When I got settled in, I called my friend, Pernille Bussone, who started the Cycling Without Age chapter in Singapore and as timing would have it, she had to step down and asked me to take over. Since then the chapter has become more of a formal organization, and in May 2017 we officially registered it as a nonprofit. We’re always working on how we can give back and do more. 

Cycling Without Age actively works to connect the young people of Singapore with their elders. How do you train them to work with seniors?

Here we have senior activity centers that are mainly for the poorest people, but we can do more with these centers. They don’t have many activities other than karaoke and bingo. And there is a big age gap here—the youth are very busy and not interested in seniors. So we started asking, how can we combine these two? How can we set up this intergenerational bonding? 

So that’s where the aging simulation suit comes in. It’s heavy, it’s hard to bend the knees, you have earmuffs on so you can’t hear well. Everyone’s so happy when they take it off, and we say, “Yeah, you get to take it off, but seniors can’t.”

To make the most of the experience, we also give the students communication skills training. We try to encourage them to use nonverbal communication, since there are language issues as well as hearing problems. We encourage the seniors to talk about their lives—we say that the ride is free, please pay with your stories.

For seniors who don’t get out much, what sort of effect does getting on a trishaw have on them?

There’s a 90-year-old lady who lives 300 meters from the beach but who can’t make it there, despite loving the ocean. She’s in a wheelchair, and it’s just too far for her, and there’s a highway in between. And for her 70-year-old daughter, the wheelchair is too heavy to push, so she has not been to the beach in 17 years. We were able to take her on a ride in a trishaw, giving her a chance to see the ocean for the first time in years. It’s those little things that are why we do this work.

What are you goals for this chapter of Cycling Without Age?

Our goal is to have at least 50 trishaws taking seniors out on rides throughout Singapore. I also dream of having a social workshop where we train youths to be mechanics for the bikes. That would give them an opportunity for a job and would save us money—and most important, it would allow us to keep the bikes functioning. Safety is a huge priority for us.

 Zendesk CEO, Mikkel Svane, taking two seniors out for our inaugural ride.

Zendesk CEO, Mikkel Svane, taking two seniors out for our inaugural ride.

People say, “You don’t put seniors on a bike, they want to go in an air-conditioned car.” But it’s not about going from Point A to Point B. It’s about individualized attention. There was a study recently that found that social isolation is even more deadly than smoking. So what do we do about loneliness? When these seniors ride in the trishaw, they then have a new story to tell. They’ve met someone new, and then they have this energy that keeps them going for a few weeks, until the next ride. It’s such as little token of generosity, but it can be life changing.