- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2009


There’s no bowling alley in the airy basement room where Gifford Medical Center runs its adult day program. That’s OK.

Sylvia Hook is throwing strikes, and at 65, she feels like a kid again.

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Mrs. Hook grasps a white remote in her hand, pulls her arm back and then swings it forward with an underhand motion, as if she’s rolling a bowling ball. Thanks to Nintendo Wii, she is: On the 42-inch Sylvania flat-screen TV in front of her, a blue ball rolls down a virtual alley.

“Got it, got it, got it.” The quiet voice of encouragement comes from 55-year-old Marla Maskell, who is seated in a wheelchair next to Mrs. Hook, her voice competing with the noise from a six-person bingo game being played at a folding table nearby.

Almost, but not quite: Only six pins drop.

Chalk it up to rust. It’s been 40 years since Mrs. Hook actually went bowling. She uses a cane to walk now, because of hip problems. But she doesn’t even have to stand up to bowl this way.

“I’m afraid of computers, but it doesn’t seem like that’s what you’re doing. It’s wonderful. You can bowl without going out to bowl,” she said.

Forget Tuesday afternoon bridge: Wii’s the new game for folks of a certain age. Or handicap.

The video game system, which allows players to smash overhand aces on a tennis court, pick up the 3-7 split and play golf without walking the links, is finding an unlikely audience in Golden Agers. And it’s becoming a staple of nursing homes, senior centers and adult day programs across the country.

“You don’t have to rent a bus, put everyone on the bus, go to the bowling alley, rent shoes, rent balls. But you can provide an equivalent experience,” said Elinor Ginzler, senior vice president for livable communities for AARP.

Launched in 2006, Wii has sold 17.5 million units. Although Nintendo says it doesn’t know how many were bought by seniors or for them, its day-room popularity isn’t completely a surprise.

Months before Wii reached the marketplace, Nintendo showed it off at an AARP trade expo. Dozens of the games were given away to retirement community operators in hopes of drumming up interest. It worked.

“We realized one, that people were able to pick it up, and two, that it was filling a void for people who either because of their age or medical conditions couldn’t play these sports,” said Amber McCollom, a spokeswoman for Nintendo of America. “People feel like they’re young again.”

Some have bought their own game system for their homes, others have learned to play at senior centers. Holiday Park Senior Center in Wheaton, Md., recently hosted a Wii bowling tournament.

“We’ve had both frail elderly and very active older adults who still play tennis or hike who have played Wii,” said the director, Carol Fuentevilla.

At Swartz Creek Senior Center in Michigan, they’ve had Wii bowling and Wii golf tournaments.

“I have several women who say, ‘It beats sitting at home in my dressing gown, having coffee and watching the boob tube all day,’ ” said Phil Bracey, a 60-year-old volunteer organizer.

Depending on how able the players are, all the swinging, twisting, stretching, bending and throwing seems to have therapeutic value, although that hasn’t been proven medically.

“We know that physical activity and cognitive stimulation are good for older adults,” said Dr. Ellen Binder, a geriatrician at Washington University in St. Louis. “It makes intuitive sense that Wii might be something that’s accessible to people and might encourage them to be more physically active.”

Wii is motivating people to get out of their rooms - or get off their sofas - and join friends at something fun. And they’re finding other benefits along the way.

“It’s that eye-hand coordination,” Mrs. Hook said, when asked what Wii’s done for her.

At the Gifford adult day program, they break out the game a couple of times a week on days not designated for crafts classes. The room comes to life once activities specialist Bonnie Pettit hands the remotes to Mrs. Hook and Mrs. Maskell, who were introduced to Wii right here. Neither player has the game at home.

Three men and a woman sitting in Barcaloungers behind them cheer as the ball heads down the lane, the din of their voices reaching a crescendo each time it nears the target.

“Looks good, looks good,” 81-year-old Rene Nadeau said as he watched Mrs. Hook’s ball roll toward the pins.

Moments later, as if a giant magnet was pulling it away, the ball veers off, missing the last two pins Mrs. Hook needs for a spare. “Oh, no. What happened to your ball?”

Final score: Mrs. Maskell 133, Mrs. Hook 126.

Judy Santamore, a licensed nurse who runs the day program, said the bowling game is the most popular with her 17 clients, who are elderly - the oldest is 93 - disabled, or both.

“They’re excited about doing it. And the people watching them are excited for them,” Mrs. Santamore said.

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