Cycling program allows nursing home residents to experience the world

Mike Welch pedals Legacy Lodge residents Janet Moyer (left) and Faye Bruce down a Jackson bike path. Welch is one of several "Cycling Without Age" volunteers who regularly take seniors for bike rides around the community in a pedal-assisted electric trishaw. (Photo by Kathryn Ziesig, Jackson Hole News&Guide)

JACKSON — The sun shining and the air crisp, Mike Welch turned his trishaw onto the bike path near the West Jackson post office.

“This is the Russ Garaman pathway,” Welch told the two people bundled under blankets in the front of the vehicle. “It’s named after Russ Garaman.”

One of his passengers perked up.

“Was he related to Abi Garaman?” Janet Moyer asked. “I knew him.”

As he pedaled the trishaw along Flat Creek, Welch informed her that Russ Garaman was the son of the former Jackson mayor. The consummate tour guide, he narrated the entire journey, pointing out landmarks, announcing bumpy parts of the road, asking if his passengers were comfortable.

The excursion was part of Cycling Without Age, an international nonprofit with chapters all over the world, now including in Jackson. The program is designed to pair volunteers, dubbed “pilots,” with residents of nursing homes for trishaw rides around the community. Welch, a pilot for the program, navigated a pedal-assisted electric trishaw, a three-wheeled craft with two passenger seats in the front and the rider in the back.

On Oct. 3 his riders were Moyer and Faye Bruce, residents of Legacy Lodge of Jackson Hole, an assisted living facility in Rafter J. As they exited Life Enrichment Associate Kristen Simpson’s car at the Senior Center of Jackson Hole, both were excited for the change of pace.

Danish entrepreneur Ole Kassow started Cycling Without Age for that exact reason: to help seniors again experience the joys of cycling, a mode of transportation whose speed allows for exhilaration and enjoyment of the landscape.

“Feeling the wind in your hair is exactly what we’re about,” Kassow said in his TED talk about the program.

In 2012 Kassow noticed elderly people in his native Copenhagen who sat outside each day, unable to leave their porches but enjoying the fresh air nonetheless. So he rented a trishaw and took a resident and a staff member of a local nursing home for a ride. Soon the adventure blossomed into a city government-supported endeavor with a fleet of bikes and a horde of pilots.

Since then it has spread across the globe, with 1,643 chapters and over 29,000 volunteers, according to the nonprofit’s website. Its mission, to help seniors play outside, prompted Simpson and chapter co-chair Andrea Mazer to start the Teton chapter. Simpson’s role at Legacy Lodge seemed like the perfect match for Cycling Without Age’s goals.

“As an employee I proposed it to Legacy Lodge,” Simpson said. “The owner said, ‘Why wouldn’t we do this?’”

The Oct. 3 ride was the first that went from town back to Legacy Lodge, but it was by no means the inaugural ride. Pilots have been coming down to Legacy Lodge this summer and riding the pathway system in Rafter J. Simpson said the Rafter J rides have demonstrated one of Cycling Without Age’s core tenets — building relationships.

She said kids and families in the neighborhood have taken an interest in the trishaw rides, giving residents space to meet their neighbors in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.

“When we take people out there’s nothing but joy and smiles and laughter,” Simpson said. “We’ve had so many experiences of children coming up and giving residents free lemonade and taking pictures, putting dogs on our laps.”

Though the program has been limited to Legacy Lodge residents for most of the summer, Simpson has big dreams for the program. She hopes to acquire an armada of bikes, with a new one coming soon that will likely live on the West Bank. She wants Cycling Without Age to become a public program, with trishaws at strategic locations around Teton County, such as the Senior Center.

For now the program is small and focused on building connections between pilots and passengers. The interactions give the residents the chance to participate in another of Cycling Without Age’s principles: storytelling. Many Legacy Lodge residents, Bruce and Moyer included, have cognitive difficulties. But the rides help them access memories that have long lain dormant, a fact that was evident on that ride.

Welch’s plan was to tour from the Senior Center to Jackson Drug for a milkshake or ice cream, then to Rafter J. The chilly fall weather dissuaded Bruce and Moyer from frozen treats, so instead Welch took the scenic route through downtown. As he pulled onto Broadway just east of Town Square, Moyer asked if they were near The Hitching Post.

Indeed they were, and Welch obliged them by pedaling to the collection of log cabins that was formerly a hotel and is now where St. John’s Medical Center offers patient and visitor accommodations. Back in the day, Moyer had a deep connection to the place.

“My husband and I used to own this. We used to cook meals for the guests there,” she said, pointing at an outdoor seating area and kitchen.

As she sat in the front of the trishaw in the parking lot, a switch turned in her brain. Stories cascaded from her, about families that would return each summer to stay with them at The Hitching Post, about horse-packing trips up Cache Creek on which Moyer would cook beans and steak, about the world travelers they met and stayed in touch with because of their connection to the hotel.

Simpson said those moments are unique to Cycling Without Age, because the residents’ daily lives at Legacy Lodge don’t elicit the same responses. They don’t have the sights of a particular city block, the recall of a specific place, the color of a front door to jog their memories without the excursions.

“The focus is not on the bike,” she said. “It’s about reconnecting people.”

Even the unpleasant parts of being outside, like the bite of the wind as the trishaw coasted down the bike path along Highway 89, were cause for laughter on Bruce and Moyer’s early October ride. The passengers each had scarves, but over the course of the ride they slipped down and let the wind in.

“Turn the heater on, I’m cold,” Moyer yelled back to Welch.

“I’m looking for the button, but I can’t find it,” he replied.

The accumulation of special moments along the ride and the fact that the residents were shaking their daily routine were what Simpson envisioned when she started the local Cycling Without Age chapter. It’s also what Kassow experienced firsthand as he built the program from one rented trishaw to an international movement.

“What Cycling Without Age has taught me is that even if you are close to 100,” he said in his TED Talk, “life can, and should, be beautiful.”