95 year-old Else Hansen into the rickshaw.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)
Can you imagine spending your entire life cycling the streets of a beautiful city every day alongside your friends and neighbors; then when you reach old age you become too weak to ride, move into a care home and never see those streets again? Ole Kassow can. Ole is a 46 year-old resident of the Østerbro district of Copenhagen. He’s a citizen activist in his spare time and he owns a successful business consulting firm called Purpose Makers that helps companies find meaning in their work and instill a sense of purpose in their employees. He volunteered at a home for the elderly when he was a student. He would spend his days helping them eat and lifting them out of bed.
Now he makes time each week to take elderly people out of their rooms and back onto the cycle tracks through his “Cycling without age” program. I joined Ole for a ride this morning and it was a fitting way to end my time in Copenhagen.
There’s a care home just a few blocks from Ole’s house. “I know the staff take really good care of them,” he shared when I met him this morning, “But they don’t really get out much.” Then Ole had an idea: What if he took them out for a bike ride? Bicycling has been part of daily life in Copenhagen for a century, he thought, and these people probably rode their bikes around as well, “So I borrowed a rickshaw and went over their and asked if anyone wanted a ride.”
Ole was surprised when they didn’t just kick him out. “10 minutes after I got there, these two old ladies came out and I took them for a spin. Then a few days later they called and asked if I could take a few more.”
Without these rides, residents of the care home would never travel beyond its doors. Even if they are strong enough to go in a wheelchair, Ole said those would only go around the block. Now with the rickshaws he takes them out for 3-4 mile jaunts through the city. And they love it. “Some of them have become quite addicted actually,” Ole said with his trademark smile.
Word quickly spread and a few weeks after that first ride Ole got a call from the City of Copenhagen asking for his help to expand the program. “They said, ‘We want to buy some rickshaws,’ so they went out and bought five Christiania’s [a popular cargo trike].” The bikes arrived in March and the program, while still experimental and limited to the Østerbro neighborhood, will likely keep growing.
When we arrived at the care home, 95 year-old Else Hansen (seated) and her friend Karen Jensen, 90, were waiting for us. As we made our way out to the rickshaw near the front door, Ole and Pernille Brandt, a staff person at the home, gingerly helped the ladies get seated. I could tell it was a major effort for the women; but I also tell they knew it would be well worth it.
Once seated and buckled in, Ole bent over and asked them where they’d like to go. They chose the famous Little Mermaid Statue, so off we pedaled.
As we rolled down the cycle track outside their building, the women waved triumphantly to friends watching from the windows…
Riding with someone pedaling two elderly women in a large rickshaw (it’s wider than most cargo bikes) in a city environment really puts the safety of your streets to the test. This would be impossible in a place with lots of potholes or high-speed cars swerving and honking at you for holding up “traffic”. But we had no problems. Ole and I could even chat as we rode. It was stress-free and I think we all appreciated the significance of this ride in our own different ways.
The width of this cycle track and the smiles on these women’s faces says a lot about Copenhagen…
“They just miss going around to the streets where they used to cycle and live,” Ole shared, “When they see a certain place, the memory comes back and they start talking. I get to hear all their great stories.”
Since he started it back in August, Ole’s program has taken off. In just one and-a-half months, his Cykling uden alder (“Cycling without age”) Facebook page has signed up 50 volunteers. In each of the five participating care homes there’s a designated contact person who the volunteers can call to schedule a time to ride. Ole gives them a brief tutorial on riding the rickshaw and then they head out. He’s also talking with a local business interested in using the program as a volunteer opportunity for employees.
I have a feeling next time I go to Copenhagen I’ll see many more of these rickshaws in action; and many more elderly folks smiling and waving and remembering what it’s like to be rolling through a city once again.
“One of the themes of the program,” said Ole, “Is that they city is the most beautiful from the cycle paths. It’s one thing to drive through; but when you’re on a bike it’s even more beautiful.”
I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for letting me join you Ole!
— Read more of our Copenhagen coverage here.