Cycling zombie

My aunt takes care of elderly people with dementia. She recently told me about a new facility in her nursing home: a home trainer with a video screen. On this screen, residents can take virtual cycling tours through Dutch cities and villages.

As is often the case with technological innovations, my first reaction was a conservative reflex; wasn’t this just a budget reduction in disguise? It probably just costs less to have elderly people use home trainers like a kind of cycling zombies than it would be to supervise them so that they could
cycle outdoors.

The next day, I asked a colleague whose mother has dementia what he thought of the idea. “Ingenious,” he replied immediately, and told me how problematic his mother’s daily walk was with her carer.
“The carer simply walks too quickly. She takes my mother by the arm and says, ‘Come on, Ma’am’.”
A home trainer seemed preferable to that, in his view. It would allow her to cycle at one kilometre per hour without it bothering anyone.

I did not truly start to change my opinion, however, until I asked my aunt how often the residents used the home trainer. She answered, “All day long. That thing is unbelievably popular.”

That evening, I was playing squash in a gym in Amsterdam. The next hall is always filled with people in their 30s, 40s and 50s on home trainers, looking at screens. They are usually playing music or watching a National Geographic documentary on sharks. As I looked at them, my admiration for the bicycle idea in the nursing home grew. Wouldn’t it be much nicer to see something on the screen that has at least has some relation with cycling? Why not let people take their virtual bikes up Mont Ventoux and compare their times with those of friends and celebrities? Such elements would probably make fitness much more addictive, and members would come more often.

Speaking of addiction, I suddenly thought back to my student days, when I would sometimes come upon a television channel late at night where you could watch the view from a car driving rough the Netherlands for hours at a time.
Did anything unusual ever happen? Never. Did I keep watching? Yes. Perhaps it was the hope that something remarkable would happen after all: a collision with a man in a gorilla suit, or a half-naked woman dancing on a zebra crossing. Or perhaps it was something else that made those images so addictive; the idea of how inconceivably big the world would be if you were actually to drive the full length of every road. The notion is that there will always be a next turn, another unknown place where life goes on.

Another fifty years or so; then I’ll be ready for the nursing home. If you’d like to visit me then, go to the basement and look for an old man sweating on a home trainer in front of a video screen. Don’t be fooled; that man is intensely happy.

Tonie Mudde is the Head of Domestic News for de Volkskrant. He graduated from TU Delft in 2003 in the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering.

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