Simple Bicycle Ride Lessens Depression Among Elderly

Melissa Powers, Linda Buettner, Barbara Shadden and Cathi McMahan

A day of workshops about innovative programs for people with memory loss conducted Oct. 9 by Linda Buettner, second from left, at the Arkansas Union was organized by Melissa Powers, from left, Barbara Shadden and Cathi McMahan.

Elderly nursing home residents fondly and vividly recalled their first bike ride decades earlier when given the chance to take a ride on a tandem bicycle with built-in wheelchair.

Linda Buettner, a recreation therapist and director of the Center for Positive Aging at Florida Gulf Coast University, described for University of Arkansas gerontology students and health-care professionals recently the methods and results of a study using the wheelchair bicycle at a nursing home in New York state. Melissa Powers, program coordinator of the Office for Studies on Aging, and Barbara Shadden, the office's co-director, organized Buettner's visit with help from Cathi McMahan, a graduate student in rehabilitation education. The Office for Studies on Aging, Sigma Phi Omega, which is the honor society for gerontology students, and the UA Associated Student Government sponsored a series of workshops Oct. 9 by Buettner.

"They remembered their first bike ride and they told us about it in great detail – that they were 5 years old, the bike was red and their dad ran alongside them," Buettner said as she showed photographs of the nursing home residents. "They also told us about teaching their own children to ride. It's a wonderful conversation starter."

Researchers found that residents of the nursing home, even those with medical conditions that prevented their participation in other activities, exhibited fewer symptoms of depression after the two-week program, Buettner reported. The New York nursing home for veterans continued the wheelchair biking program and now owns three of the specially built German bicycles, she said, and other nursing homes in the United States and Canada have also instituted the riding program.

Buettner's center offers care facilities free videos to use in explaining the program to civic groups when they need to raise funds to buy the bikes, which cost about $3,000 depending on accessories. She showed the video during the workshop.

Many elderly people suffer from depression, and it is often undiagnosed, Buettner explained. Depression is a common side effect of many medications that elderly people must take for physical ailments, she said.

The patients who took the bicycle rides communicated more and came out of their rooms more, Buettner reported, and their family members and staff members of the nursing home enjoyed getting out and riding with them.

"They spent 15 minutes a day riding outdoors or indoors, depending on the weather," she said. "It allowed them to have a thrill again, and there aren't many thrilling things in nursing homes.

"Their faces are so different once they come back from a ride," Buettner continued. "There is hope. We can make a difference in the lives of these older adults."

Throughout the day, Buettner talked about other ways to help elderly people with depression or dementia, including therapy using pets and another program called "Simple Pleasures" in which items such as a sensory vest, sewing-quilting cards, "look inside" purses and fishing boxes, wave machines, home decorator books and activity aprons are made and used to interact with nursing home residents.

The Office for Studies on Aging based in the College of Education and Health Professions coordinates a graduate certificate in gerontology based in the UA Graduate School as well as operating several programs for the elderly in conjunction with human service agencies and conducting research on such topics as the effect of stress on caregivers' health.

Powers said the gerontology students were impressed with the wheelchair biking program.

"It is a good example of a practical way to improve the social, emotional and physical well-being of older adults with depression," Powers said. "The seemingly simple activity of riding a bike had such a noticeable effect, not only on the individuals, but also the environment of their care facility."



Heidi Stambuck, director of communications
College of Education and Health Professions
(479) 575-3138,

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