Like many senior-community residents in the age of COVID-19, Bonnie Douglas endures a lot of boredom and loneliness.
With seniors at heightened risk from the novel coronavirus, senior facilities have curtailed social activities, restricted visitors and canceled communal meals.
But thanks to a growing group of volunteers and an odd-looking bicycle, Douglas, 80, is one of many Littleton seniors finding joy and respite out on the city’s trails.
As often as she can, Douglas signs up for bike rides through Cycling Without Age. The group, founded in Denmark in 2012, takes seniors on rides aboard “trishaws” — specialized bikes with a love seat-like bench on the front, powered by a rider assisted by an electric motor.
Douglas said she loves gliding along the Mary Carter Greenway, often guided by former Littleton Mayor Phil Cernanec, who was instrumental in starting the Littleton chapter and now enjoys sharing his love of bicycling and knowledge of the city with riders.
“I physically can’t bike anymore, and I didn’t realize how much I missed it,” said Douglas as she finished a mid-ride ice cream cone from Nixon’s coffee shop along the trail on July 28. “It’s so refreshing being out in God’s world.”
Life in a senior home can be dull during the pandemic, she said.
“I spend so much time in my room,” she said. “For a while you can find things to do — puzzles, playing on the computer, Bible study — but it’s hard. We’re all feeling that loneliness. But when I’m out on the trishaw, I feel like I’m queen for a day.”
On recent rides, Douglas said she’s spotted deer, snowy egrets and a bald eagle. On her 80th birthday, her volunteer “pilot” enlisted people along the trail to sing “Happy Birthday” to her.
“It’s been such a blessing,” she said.
A half-dozen of Douglas’ fellow Riverpointe Senior Living residents all used the same word to describe trishaw rides: Freedom.
“It’s a chance for some fresh air,” said Ruby Schumacher, 92.
“I get to feel the wind in my hair,” said Marion Purdy, 83.
“It’s so pleasant gliding along beneath the green leaves,” said Merlin Logan, 89.
Cycling Without Age is a godsend in a challenging time, said Ashley Simmons, Riverpointe’s resident services director. Simmons and her staff are doing their best to keep life lively during the pandemic, but restrictions can feel stifling.
“We’ve been dealing with fear and isolation,” Simmons said. “This is a great, safe way for residents to get out and explore.”
The stimulation of trishaw rides is excellent for alleviating the mental health impacts of lockdowns, said Barb Lotze, the president of CWA’s Littleton chapter, and director of business development for Visiting Angels, a senior services provider.
“We’re seeing a lot of depression, especially among those with dementia,” Lotze said. “These rides are so important. There’s no end in sight to the coronavirus, and this is the least we can do to help.”
Lotze helped line up private donors to order the trishaw from Denmark, at a cost of $10,000. The group held its first rides last November, then took a hiatus through the winter. But when the pandemic hit in March, the program’s popularity exploded.
For Cernanec, the former mayor who now volunteers as a trishaw pilot, CWA is part of a lifelong commitment to helping the elderly live full lives.
“Life isn’t just about living a long time, it’s also about how you’re living,” said Cernanec, who has sat for years on the board of the Area Agency on Aging.
In his career in Littleton politics, Cernanec was also instrumental in supporting The Hudson Gardens and rehabbing the stretch of the South Platte River where he now guides bike rides.
As CWA grows in popularity among local seniors, Cernanec said the group is eager to buy at least one more trishaw – at a cost of at least $10,000, maybe more.
“We’re growing, and we want to keep growing,” Cernanec said. “But we’re going to need help.”