Cycling Without Age takes elderly nursing home residents, who tend to be socially excluded, back into the streets and allows them to be part of ongoing urban life. As the elderly passengers and younger cyclists co-create new experiences on trishaws, Cycling Without Age showcases the joy of intergenerational exchange to society.
The New Idea
Ole started Cycling Without Age (CWA) in 2013 to bring community members from different generations together in an adventurous, natural and participatory way. Exporting some of the most fundamental elements of Danish culture, including a focus on wellbeing and cycling, CWA has developed into a global movement within a few years. Up until today, CWA has developed partnerships with 70 municipalities throughout Denmark. The idea has spread to more than 30 countries and now comprises a global network of more than 8,000 volunteers and 1,000 trishaws.
Realizing how isolation and lack of personal relationships affect the elderly’s general sense of life motivation, while identifying the benefits the elderly can bring to younger generations, Ole saw the need to build a bridge between these two groups. Using trishaw bikes, volunteers take elderly people to a destination they agree upon together – ranging from a new café to a location that holds dear memories. CWA aspires to build a natural platform for storytelling and exchange, creating space for conversations and memories, using city life as a catalyst. While young volunteers learn about their city and the life experiences of the older person, the elderly are empowered to play an active part and share their knowledge and experience.
What started as Ole’s personal initiative in 2012, taking an elderly person from the local nursing home for a ride on a rented trishaw, transformed into a widely celebrated national movement in 2013. The concept supplements the currently often ineffective and detached elder care system by connecting key stakeholders, such as municipalities, nursing homes and elderly associations, under the mutual aim of providing better life quality for an increasingly aging population. Altogether, CWA provides a moving platform for experience co-creation and cross-generational involvement with multiple positive returns to communities, including physical and psychological health benefits for all ages. By bringing young and old people together onto the streets, Ole makes the joy of intergenerational exchange visible to society.
The World Health Organization estimates that the population above 60 will double by 2050. In line with this global increase, the percentage of individuals over the age of 65 has now reached approximately 18% of the population in the Nordics.
In the Nordic countries, as in many other regions, conditions for senior citizens do not allow for them to actively engage with society. Even if the region is known for strong welfare systems, publicly funded nursing homes are typically designed around providing material essentials to the residents such as food, shelter, medicine and nursing staff. By routinely failing to assess social needs, many elder care institutions have not identified human interaction and conversation as a basic human needs. Consequently, the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare reported in 2016 that 58% of the elderly experience loneliness to a certain degree, whether they reside in a nursing home or receive home care. Loneliness and social isolation have negative health implications, often correlating with psychological issues, such as depression and anxiety. The situation is aggravated by the fact that the elderly are naturally excluded due to a shrinking number of acquaintances and increased lack of mobility over time. According to the Nordic Welfare Institution, higher life expectancy and increasing pressure on institutions, put a growing strain on Nordic government spending.
The pace of modern and urban lifestyles tends to give young and old individuals less occasions to interact. Similarly, the isolating characteristics of many care facilities with limited connections to the surrounding world, hinder the opportunities for different generations and even family members to spend meaningful time with the residents. This missing knowledge and interaction results in a lack of understanding about the elderly’s needs which in turn creates stereotypes portraying the elderly as a burden rather than an asset for society. On the other hand, inadequate presence of the elderly in everyday life, deprives younger generations from their valuable experiences and knowledge. Consequently, the absence of intergenerational exchange shapes societies that are less capable of empathy and tolerance in the long run.
Ole’s vision is to build inclusive and empathetic communities where a person’s age, background or ability to move should not hinder their participation in social life. He aims to achieve this vision by reintegrating a conventionally marginalised group, the elderly, into their communities by building intergenerational bridges. CWA’s strategy is comprised of three focus areas; community building and the promotion of active citizenship, replacing the current emphasis of the elder care system with a human-centred approach and finally, shifting negative public perception of aging from it being seen as placing a burden towards being viewed as an asset for society.
Empowering the elderly forms the basis of Ole’s work. CWA seeks to take the elderly back into social life using cycling as a social technology. Sharing a ride in their city, discovering new cafés or watching people on the streets noticeably improves the wellbeing and health of the elderly. A question as simple as “Where do you want to go today?”, can leave nursing home residents feeling empowered and valued. Elderly people are being given the opportunity to co-create adventures with their new younger friends and to share life stories after revisiting places invested with memories. Ole’s approach of adopting a moving platform ensures that conversations occur effortlessly and friendships built are authentic, differing from the relationship to paid nursing staff. To ensure harmony across the organization, CWA is built upon five guiding values, all closely aligned with Ole’s values, which are shaped by his personal and professional experiences; generosity, slowness, relationships, storytelling and ‘without age’. These values form the basis of CWA and they are essential to follow from the individual to organisational level. While empowering senior citizens, CWA simultaneously promotes active citizenship among the younger members of society. Taking an active role in improving one’s own community does not only bring physical activity but also creates a sense of connection between young people and their communities. The convenient design of trishaw bikes that contains a small supportive engine attracts not only experienced cyclists to volunteer but also those who wish to volunteer but are less physically fit, lowering the barriers for increased civic participation. Through the online booking system, first time volunteers can easily sign up and get connected to volunteer captains, who train and welcome them to the CWA community.
The second strand of Ole’s strategy lies in challenging the priorities of the elder care system with a human-centred approach. Ole has seen increasing interest from various sectors in his work, as they see how it relieves pressure from care homes and staff while strengthening communities and social capital at a relatively low cost. Ole knew that to tackle social isolation and disconnection between generations, a deep-rooted and cross-sectoral solution was needed – harnessing existing resources among civil society rather than spending more money on the institutions. His idea falls neatly into the Everyone a Changemaker vision – empowering old and young to play an active role in solving an immense and ever growing societal issue. To achieve this, CWA recently launched the concept of the “Academy” – an optional training for more engaged volunteers to become local change leaders. To amplify the impact these change leaders have, the Academy training includes workshops on various topics, ranging from improving mental health, to tackling loneliness, active citizenship and building effective cross-sectoral partnerships. Following the training, local change leaders are assigned to a nursing home with the role of strengthening stakeholder involvement and influencing the local communities while ensuring that the elderly participants and their wellbeing remains at the centre of all decision making and operations. Ole and the CWA team currently lead the development and piloting of the Academy in Denmark together with the Municipality of Copenhagen, with the ambition of spreading the concept globally. The team is aware that involving citizens in their cross-sectoral model and empowering them is essential to reach decision makers in a broader context and to influence public welfare investments towards human-centered approaches.
Ultimately, Ole’s ambition is to bring about a mind-set shift among society and create empathetic and trusting communities. To fuel this shift, Ole relies on storytelling to highlight the personal narratives, dignity and values older citizens hold. Telling the story of CWA and the lives it affects through documentaries, news articles, speeches, books and other channels allows the public to look at the aging population through a different lens. Through this active storytelling approach, CWA not only reaches to a broad audience but also inspires empathy, a deeper understanding of the elderly’s life and active citizenship throughout communities as Ole actively emboldens everyone involved to become storytellers themselves.
Ole extensively studied the kinds of challenges that typically arise when establishing a movement that is based on volunteer engagement. Thus, he developed a comprehensive set of volunteer management techniques which incorporates measures for different scenarios, varying from seasonal effects on cycling to ensuring volunteer commitment after an elderly participant passes away. CWA has consciously kept entry barriers low to allow for fast growth of the organisation, including low establishment costs for new chapters and an accessible infrastructure. CWA has grown exponentially over only a few years, reaching over 20 countries outside of Denmark, all the way from Australia to Chile. While the presence of CWA currently consists of a few local chapters in some countries, in certain locations such as in the state of Wisconsin, in the U.S., public authorities and elderly communities are in collaboration to reach more than 100 locations, covering almost all the nursing homes in the state over the coming years. In Denmark, the A.P. Møller Foundation has granted CWA with means to enable a spread to every single nursing home in the country over the next three years.
Ole is constantly seeking to broaden the movement’s extent, empowering new chapter leaders to initiate CWA in their communities, building on the same guiding values, principles, tools and knowledge once they become members of the international non-profit association. This decentralized affiliation approach allows each chapter to take financial ownership and to adapt the model to their local cultural and legal context while receiving trainings from the CWA team. To ensure resilience and ongoing development within the organisation, Ole identifies enlightening examples around the world, so called ‘Bright spots’, which allow the CWA community to benefit from best-practices and a peer-to-peer support system to facilitate the expansion to new locations. With a creative drive and empowering mind-set, Ole has already laid the foundations to include other socially excluded groups, such as disabled people and the elderly receiving home care.
Ole was born in Odense, Denmark in 1966. Early in Ole’s childhood, his father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease affecting the central nervous system. Growing up with a father in a wheelchair and a brother with speech impairment and dyslexia, Ole personally witnessed how society has a tendency to stigmatize and exclude individuals with various handicaps. Ole’s father’s way of using humour and practical jokes in his efforts to make others happy shaped Ole’s optimistic personality. Together they developed a positive approach towards the disease and saw it as an advantage that allowed them to get closer. Thanks to this close relationship, Ole learned from a young age to look beyond people’s handicaps.
Ole’s immense interest in different cultures, geographies and languages combined with the family’s physical difficulty in traveling, due to his father’s condition, motivated Ole to travel to different countries once he reached the end of high school. These travels further fuelled Ole’s curiosity and led him to study a University Degree in Languages, Literature and Business. The unexpected worsening of his father’s disease combined with financial struggles, made Ole responsible for looking after the family at a relatively young age. During his studies, Ole worked at nursing homes where he took care of the elderly in his spare time. Following his graduation and the death of his father at the age of 23, Ole started his career in the healthcare sector. After ten years in the business field, he decided to quit his job to start multiple initiatives with a focus on triggering positive change in his own community. Meanwhile, his interest for the environment and personal efforts in reducing his own carbon footprint inspired him to open and run a small ecological farm in central Copenhagen together with his wife. Eventually, Ole’s experiences with his father and brother, along with his observations of how kindness can bring much unleashed potential and unused resources to life, led Ole to engage in creating solutions for those who should not be defined by their disease, handicap or age.
Throughout his childhood, Ole’s family had a tradition of surprising each other and others by practising random acts of kindness. Ole continued this tradition; one day deciding to offer a bike ride to one of the residents at a local nursing home after thinking that the elderly might enjoy a ride in their cities. After receiving appreciative feedback following the initial ride, Ole realized he could combine his lifelong passion for cycling with the insights he gained from his family to influence a more dignified and human-centred health-care, laying the foundations for his idea: CWA. Ole’s natural skills in communication along with his inclusive approach, allowed him to reach over half a million people through his TEDx-Copenhagen talk in 2014, his talks at ministries and governmental agencies, Danish Embassies across the world and at various international conferences.