On Ole Kassow’s regular cycling route through Copenhagen, he often saw a 97-year-old resident of a local nursing home enjoying the outdoors with his walker. Without fail, the man, Thorkild, was outside, Kassow says in a talk at TEDxCopenhagenSalon, and soon Kassow began to wonder about his past. “I had been flicking through photos of Copenhagen in the 1930s, which was quite a jolly inferno of bicycles,” Kassow says, “and I realized that [Thorkild] must have been cycling his bike every day then, too, and most likely enjoyed it as much as I do.”
Copenhagen has a rich bicycle culture and bicycling history, Kassow says. In 1934, there were approximately 400,000 bicycles in the city reports the Cycling Embassy Of Denmark, and today, 56% of people who work or study in the city commute by bike every day. With cycling such a big part of Danish culture, Kassow worried that losing the ability to bicycle would be especially alienating for senior citizens like Thorkild.
“I [had] heard countless stories of [local senior citizens] reluctantly [having] to give up cycling because they became afraid of crashing or being hit by a car door,” Kassow says, and he began to brainstorm how he could get seniors back on bikes.
His solution? “I showed up unannounced at the nursing home equipped with a rented rickshaw,” he says. He assumed that he’d get turned away or looked at like he was crazy, but instead, he was met with enthusiasm, and was soon giving a ride to a staff member and a resident named Gertrud.
The ride was magical, says Kassow:
“I asked Gertrud where she wanted to go and her reply was prompt. She wanted to go to Langelinie. The boardwalk along the harbor is where all Copenhageners have been going for generations on Sunday bicycle rides for an ice cream and a stroll. I learned that she had a very special relationship with the harbor. She told me that she had lived in Greenland for many years after the war and had brought up her children there. This was where the Greenland ships would dock. She told me she could almost smell the tar, hear seagulls and sense the hive of activity. The ride lasted about an hour and by the time we arrived back at the nursing home I felt a very strong bond with this stranger, Gertrud. I almost felt as if I had been on a time journey with her. And having dropped off the two ladies at the nursing home I left in a rare spirit.”
Kassow wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the ride — a day later he received a call from the nursing home asking if he’d come back with his bike — ‘All the other residents want a bike ride too,’ the manager explained.
Eventually Kassow gave Thorkild, the man he’d watched from afar, a ride. “Passing through one of the parks he suddenly exclaimed, ‘I used to live in there,’ pointing to the old army barracks by Rosenborg Castle,” Kassow says. “That was when I learned that he had been a royal guard for 18 months back in 1938 … I realized I had, in fact, still a lot to learn [from him].”
Kassow’s cycling trips were such a success that he began to wonder if he should expand the one-person program. “I wrote to the City of Copenhagen explaining what I was doing, and asked if they sponsor a bike for the nursing home,” he says. The city offered more: Five bikes for five nursing homes. A group bike ride was organized by Kassow and over 100 people joined the five rickshaws for a ride around the city.
Kassow named the new initiative Cycling Without Age and the program spread to other cities and even other countries. There are now Cycling Without Age programs in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Guatemala, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, and even more places.
“What has astounded me the most is how simple bicycle rides with one or two passengers have such profound effects on quality of life. Not just for the elderly, who may break free from social isolation, but also for the volunteers, who experience the pleasure of helping others,” he says.
Through the program, young people have gained mentors and friends and older people have gained mobility and companionship, Kassow says. During a 300-km cycling trip from Copenhagen to Hamburg, one 90-year-old passenger said the journey was “the best holiday of her entire life,” while another passenger told Kassow that after the trip, “she felt alive again.”
For Kassow, the program is about creating relationships and meaningful experiences between people of all ages.
To learn more, watch his whole talk below: