Rickshaw rides get Antwerp’s oldest residents out and about


Two cyclists from Antwerp have begun offering free rickshaw rides to residents of nursing homes to help them break out of social isolation

Breaking the cycle of loneliness

It’s no secret that the elderly are particularly prone to social isolation. But, since last summer, Wind in De Haren (Wind in Your Hair) has helped dozens of Antwerp seniors re-engage with their local community on rickshaw rides around the city.

The project was launched by Lieven Jacobs and Stijn Wens of the biking blog Antwerpenize.be.  The lion’s share of the funding came from the Burgerbegroting (Citizen’s Budget), the City of Antwerp’s experimental initiative that lets the citizens allot 10% of the annual district budget – some €1.1 million.

Cycling support agency Fietsberaad Vlaanderen and sustainable transport company Mobiel 21 also contributed funds, but “the whole idea of rickshaw rides for elderly people came from Ole Kassow, the founder of Cycling Without Age in Denmark,” explains Wens (pictured right), a graphic designer by trade.

Founded in 2012, the Danish non-profit has spawned 200 chapters from Argentina to Australia, encouraging the elderly to share their stories and get out and about on rickshaws piloted by volunteers. 

Changing lives

Wens and Jacobs flew to Copenhagen last July to buy two Christiana Bikes – or “trishaws” – from the company, and then spent the next 10 days cycling them back to Antwerp with cardboard cut-outs of seniors seated in the front. (On the flight there, a flight attendant sat the cut-outs in first-class.)

One of the trishaws went to Leuven, while the other has been rotated around various Antwerp nursing homes. Gulden Lelie and ’t Zand, both on the left bank of the Scheldt river, proved particularly receptive to the idea. 

Sometimes they start to talk when they haven’t for years. It’s better than medicine

- Co-founder Stijn Wens

“Our agreement with the Burgerbegroting was to provide 50 rides from August to December,” explains Wens, “but in fact we did many more.”

Volunteers sign up via the website to take seniors out on the bikes, which seat up to two passengers and are fitted with hoods and blankets for colder months. Handily, they’re also electric.

“The passengers usually don’t know the volunteer in advance, and in the beginning some are a bit unsure about the idea,” says Wens. “But after five minutes or so, they’re talking.”

The two passengers engage in conservation, which they may have not done previously in the nursing home. “And they’re seeing things and are triggered by the new experience to talk to each other. Sometimes they start to talk when they haven’t for years. It’s better than medicine.”  

Planting the seed

Many of the passengers have lived in Antwerp their whole lives, or used to work in the city, so they want to go and see their old homes or the parks they used to visit. Coffee breaks also regularly figure on the itinerary.

“My first ride was with two Marias,” Wens recalls. “One was 93 years old and had lived in a retirement home on the left bank for 10 years. She had never been into the city in that time, though it was just 15 minutes by bike to the Sint-Anna tunnel.”

While this Maria opened up about her life, the other Maria casually fell into conversation with a Spanish tourist – revealing a dormant fluency in the language.

Next month, the cycle starts again, with a new crop of nursing homes and volunteers. Beyond that, Wens hopes that the City of Antwerp will fund it for another year.

“Our idea was to plant the seed,” he says. “Now all the nursing homes know about it, so maybe they’ll buy their own bikes, or another organisation will pick it up and spread it. There are so many possibilities.”

Photo courtesy Antwerpenize