It’s a sunny day at the Emerald Heights retirement center in Redmond, and two walkers stand unattended on the sidewalk. A scarf is left draped over one and a book sits unread on another. Aside from construction workers walking idly by, no one else is around.
Outside a home for senior citizens, this might be a cause for alarm; a lost person or perhaps even an abduction. But on this recent July afternoon, the abandoned walkers are nothing short of signs of joy.
Suddenly, 101-year-old Marian Kuehn and 80-year-old Sandra Terry come zipping around the corner. They’re seated at the front of a specialized electric bike called a “trishaw.”
Pedaling the three-wheeled contraption is Gabrielle Myers, 31, the Washington representative of Cycling Without Age, a global organization trying to enrich the lives of older people by visiting extended living facilities and offering rides piloted by volunteers.
The bike comes to a stop, and Kuehn and Terry carefully step off while someone brings them their walkers.
“I was on my way for a walk and got interrupted for the most wonderful ride,” Terry said.
Terry broke her back six months ago, and until she was spontaneously whisked away for a ride, she has not been able to access the wooded gravel trail near the center. Since her injury, moving around for too long gives her too much “trepidation,” she said.
The retirement home, along with seven others in the Puget Sound area, has two specialized electric bikes, which cost about $10,000 each. The bikes, which stay at each facility, were granted through the nonprofit LeadingAge Washington with money from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.
In addition to the seated three wheel bike, the retirement community also has a bike where a wheelchair can be rolled on and clipped to a box at the front.
Cycling Without Age was founded in Denmark in 2012 and is now represented in 52 countries with dozens of chapters across the United States.
The Washington chapter was formed this year, and in the few months Myers has been giving rides to older adults, the program has become her passion project, she said. Each week, she visits one of the nursing homes that have been granted a bike to give rides.
Many of the retirement homes do not have enough staff members to make sure residents who do not have family members visiting them get outside, she said. Myers said she met people who haven’t been outside their rooms in months, let alone taken around the neighborhood in a car or bike.
Myers has met around 150 senior citizens through the program, each one completely hooked after the first ride.
Depending on where the nursing home is located, sometimes Myers takes them to a coffee shack or buys them croissants at bakeries. In the North and Central Seattle locations, residents enjoy rides around the Space Needle or Green Lake, she said.
One of Cycling without Age’s mottos is “the chance to feel the wind in your hair,” she said.
Myers said she has gotten to know many of her passengers and get the opportunity to hear their life stories. She’s met a couple that has been together for more than 70 years and still giddy around each other. Another, is a man on a fixed income who still insists on taking his bible study group out for pizza.
The program may expand to grant bikes to eight more nursing homes this year, Myers said, but first she needs more volunteers. She is training some people right now, but she is only able to visit each location once every two weeks.
The bikes are intuitive to use and people with family members at the nursing home often use them when Myers is not around. The bikes are electrically powered so volunteers do not have to particularly athletic, she said.
The most important qualification is that the volunteer is open to having conversations with older adults and fostering intergenerational relationships, she said.
Up next for a ride at the Emerald Heights facility was 89-year-old Dick Swope. However when they returned, it was Swope pedaling behind the handlebars and Myers sitting up front.
Swope had asked whether he could take his wife out for rides, himself, when Myers offered him the opportunity to try the bike.
“What about the availability of this?” he asked, turning to Myers after the ride.
“Whenever you want,” she replied.
People interested in volunteering with Cycling Without Age in Washington should contact Myers through their Instagram page: instagram.com/cwa_seattle/