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Duet BikePaul Hewer (in wheelchair) with Glen Paul, volunteer cyclist for Yaletown House.
Wheelchair-Bound and Bicycle-Propelled Seniors
By Jean Chong
Photography: Jean Chong
Yaletown House is a non-profit 130-bed long-term care facility in downtown Vancouver. Many residents are wheelchair-bound and, in spring 2009, Yaletown House launched its Duet Bike program to provide modified-bike transportation for its patients.
After acquiring enough donations, they purchased their first wheelchair-bike and trained its first two volunteer riders. The program was inspired by an existing Duet Bike program that started in Victoria, BC eight years ago. According to Lynn Parkin, director of communications and community relations, Yaletown House is the first health care facility in Metro Vancouver to have a Duet Bike program.
Glen Paul, a social worker for many years in Vancouver and a cycling volunteer, was instrumental in launching the program at Yaletown House. Paul is a lifelong cyclist and the Duet Bike combines his passions for cycling and working with seniors. The program reconnects frail seniors to the outdoor pleasures of their neighborhood and community.
The bike itself is an eight-speed modified tandem bike manufactured in Germany, with a trailer hitch to securely attach a lightweight but sturdy wheelchair. The wheelchair is usable separately to move around in stores and cafes. Fundraising to acquire a second Duet Bike-wheelchair is underway.
Paul enthuses that the program breaks down invisible barriers of communication between the wheelchair-bound elderly and the rest of the community. The Duet Bike-wheelchair in motion is a novelty that always attracts questions from passersby. It seems the ride naturally presents opportunities for friendly dialogue.
Paul now ensures that he has some written information about the program whenever he goes out with the residents. Over a two-hour volunteer time period, he can provide bike rides for up to four residents along the Seawall bike path.
Residents wishing to become an occasional wheelchair passenger in the Duet Bike must receive a health assessment and get written consent from family members/guardians after first obtaining a referral and approval from their family physician. Ideal participants are residents who are able to transfer themselves from one wheelchair to another, and with enough upper body movement for self-mobility in a wheelchair. It is helpful if the passenger previously rode a bike, as they will likely adapt more quickly to the Duet Bike as they float along in a wheelchair, with light traffic nearby.
The Duet Bike accommodates a passenger weight of up to 200 pounds (90 kilograms) and requires a reasonably fit, strong and experienced cyclist who can deal with front-weighted maneuvering around corners and up some ramps. Cycling volunteers undergo a structured training program before they take patients out for a spin.
Proponents of the Duet Bike program – and several program studies – have noted significant patient improvement and renewed enthusiasm, which could also benefit other care facilities with long-term wheelchair-bound and physically disabled residents.
James Benson – a recreational therapist for the Vancouver Island Health Authority – and other colleagues conducted a study of the Victoria-based Duet Bike program. Patients were given a daily ride for two weeks, which decreased their level of depression in comparison to non-participants. When the study demonstrated psycho-social benefits for participants, Juan De Fuca Hospital purchased three more Duet Bikes. The Vancouver Island Health Authority now offers this program during summer months at four health care facilities.
Paul cheerfully admits it is for long-term “selfish reasons” that he is actively acquiring more Duet Bikes and recruiting more volunteers. The more Duet Bike programs are in place, the more people will benefit when they live in long-term care facilities. Some day in the future, he may want to take advantage of the program himself.