Growing up on a farm in the Niagara Region, a long bike ride was a daily pleasure for Irma Stirtzinger, who is now 93.
It was a fun way to spend her days, but also a necessary mode of transportation in a rural area where her friends weren’t just a short walk away. As a girl, she saved two years worth of wages from picking fruit to buy her first bike. It started a lifelong love of cycling that hasn’t waned over eight decades. She was able to ride on her own right up until her 70s.
“It was the only way for me to get around when I was young and I just loved it,” she said.
These days, Stirtzinger is a resident of London’s Mount Hope Centre for Long Term Care. The health challenges that come with age — including a leg amputation to treat a blocked artery and two knee replacements — have meant her solo riding days are behind her.
But thanks to a program funded by the St. Joseph’s Health Care Foundation, Stirtzinger hasn’t stopped rolling. Three years ago, Mount Hope purchased two passenger bikes and trained some of its care staff as pilots to take residents on regular rides around London.
It’s been a game-change for Stirtzinger, who became a Mount Hope resident last year. She no longer pedals, but still savours each moment of her now regular rides.
“It brings back my youth,” she said. “I love it. It’s exhilarating and you feel like you’re so alive, it’s wonderful. It’s getting out and feeling the air and seeing everything in nature.”
Bike journeys inspired by global movement
Stirtzinger’s rides take her to places like Gibbons Park, along the Thames Valley Parkway and over the Blackfriars Bridge. She loves watching the wind shake loose the autumn leaves and spotting wildlife like Blue Herons.
Often the person providing the pedal power is Katherine Plested, a therapeutic recreation specialist with Mount Hope.
She first heard about the idea of using passenger bikes to keep seniors riding through Cycling Without Age, a global movement started in Denmark. The concept has proved particularly popular with so many seniors whose social contacts were limited by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cycling Without Age founder Ole Kassow made a presentation about the movement during a visit to Western University in 2018 and Plested loved the idea.
Donors helped fund the purchase of two bikes at Mount Hope, and its a pricey purchase: up to $20,000 if they include a chargeable electric motor, which Plested recommends to help with hills.
“Both bikes really allow for a lot of storytelling and interaction with the resident,” said Plested. “It’s time together, which really makes it special.”
‘Just pure laughter’
Plested said the rides give residents an experience with widespread physical and mental health benefits.
“I’ll take a resident who’s almost 100 and she giggles the entire time, so it’s just pure laughter,” she said. “It really brings them back to that playful stage. We’ve had families bike beside us and bring their grandkids.”
Mount Hope has a team of trained pilots and the daily rides are shared among the home’s 300-plus residents who enjoy a spin around town.
Other London care homes are looking to get similar programs on the road.
One application submitted to the city’s Neighbourhood Decision Making program this year to fund a bike purchase for a similar program at Waverley Retirement Residence in Old South.
Plested said the more homes taking part, the better.
“Every sort of senior living really should have this opportunity,” she said.