It’s a race for all time as dozens of elderly Spokane assisted living residents keep pace with three baby boomer women pedaling 4,305 miles across the United States – all in an effort to encourage senior activity and combat depression and apathy among the aging.
The unique challenge is the brainchild of mental health counselor Melinda Spohn, who directs the Senior Retirement Project – a nonprofit that provides low-cost, in-home counseling to seniors and their family caregivers.
Spohn, 60, began running, cycling and swimming seven years ago when she decided more exercise was needed as she aged. Two years ago she started competing in triathlons. For several years, she’s enjoyed long-distance cycle and camping trips with her sister Lisa Bassett, 58, and Jodee Thompson, who serves as the vice president of the Senior Retirement Project.
Both Bassett and Thompson have new hip replacements. None of the women believe age is any reason to stop exercising and exploring the world – even if it’s from a computer screen in a retirement or nursing home.
The trio make up the team cycling the TransAmerican route this summer solo, meaning they won’t have a support vehicle or crew. Just them and their 35-pound steel-framed touring bikes and 40 pounds of gear, including bear spray for the rumored wild dogs of Kentucky and Vicks to fight odiferous miles of road kill. They hope many seniors join them on this 10-state journey by following them daily on their travel log, cyclingforseniors.org, where Spohn will provide travel updates, stories and pictures.
“So many of them can’t travel anymore,” Spohn said. “Now they can.”
The senior “groupies” are encouraged to pace the ladies by earning miles by doing their own exercise at the assisted living centers. For each 30 minutes of activity – chair exercises, walking, swimming, yoga, the seniors at the three participating communities (Riverview Retirement Community, Harvard Park and Orchard Crest Retirement and Assisted Living) will earn 1 mile. The team is encouraging activity and fitness directors to post a United States map in the communities’ activity area and mark the daily progress of both the seniors and the cycling team.
The cycling trip will have a large presence in Riverview’s aquatic center where there is also a walking track and fitness gym.
“We want to try to promote them to exercise along with (Melinda),” said Melissa Goetz, the assisted living administrator for Riverview. The community contracts with Spohn to provide in-house mental health counseling services. Spohn has become a popular face at the large facility with about 450 residents.
“She better come home to us in one piece,” Goetz said, joking about the rigorous, cross-country trip.
Spohn will have a counselor available to the Senior Retirement Project during her three-month absence.
While on the trip, the group plans to stop at senior centers and other retirement and assisted living communities and talk about the importance of staying active, not just for physical health but also mental health.
In a research survey Spohn conducted in six retirement and assisted living communities, 61 percent of residents reported they have had a depressed mood very often to occasionally. Yet nearly 69 percent of the residents surveyed said they were very unlikely to unlikely to discuss their change in mood with staff.
This is one of the reasons Spohn and The Retirement Project think it’s important for retirement and assisted living facilities to have a designated mental health professional onsite or to encourage in-home counseling services. They believe cycling across America is an excellent way to promote the concept.
The team is accepting pledges and donations, with the proceeds going to support counseling for low-income seniors and family caregivers. It also is looking for sponsors.
The team leaves from Yorktown, Va., on May 3, a date picked with the hopes of beating the East’s heat and humidity and missing the lingering snows on the Appalachians, Ozarks and Rocky Mountains, including Colorado’s 11,500-foot Hoosier Pass. The women should arrive in Oregon the first week of August, either finishing in Florence, or perhaps Astoria, if they can muster the last 200 windy and hilly seaside miles up the Oregon coast.
As the cyclists average 50 to 60 miles per day on the flatter stretches of the Great Plains and perhaps with luck 35 miles per day as they huff over mountain passes, Spohn thinks the seniors likely will outpace them some days. That, she said, is a good boost of encouragement for all.
On Spohn’s travel log, she quotes a 92-year-old senior who said, “My late wife and I traveled all the time. I have been in this wheelchair for 5 years; I can’t wait to see the country through your pictures and traveling stories. It will be my last trip across the country before I die.”