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Wild for Wii: Elders Embrace Technology
By Brandi Redding

It’s a classic night at the lanes: players all trying for a strike while friends and team members cheer them on. It doesn’t matter that all those attending are over the age of 60 or that some are in wheelchairs or suffer from macular degeneration. The Wii, a Nintendo gaming console, has leveled the playing field by bringing virtual bowling lanes—and other sports venues—to older adult care facilities across the nation.

Brittany Pointe Estates, an ACTS retirement life community in Lansdale, PA, acquired a Wii as soon as it was released through the efforts of some resourceful residents, according to Terry Alburger, a fitness instructor in the community. “Right from the get-go, it was very popular,” she says. “I think one of the biggest things about it is the fact that a lot of the people here can no longer go bowling, they can’t actually do sports, and so with this they feel like they are [competing].”

The Wii system works through motion-sensitive remote controls that allow users to apply realistic movements to activities. There are limited buttons, making it easy for strangers to gaming technology to learn since most controls use the on-screen cursor. The remote is sensitive to how it’s moved, including speed and different angles, enabling the user to put spin on the ball or control how hard it’s thrown.

Most communities use Wii Sport, which comes standard with the system, or Wii Fit, which is more focused on exercise and health. Wii Sport includes tennis, bowling, boxing, golf, and baseball. Most of the games can involve as many as four players, whether playing simultaneously (as in tennis) or taking turns (as in bowling), simulating the actual game.

Experts agree that the exercise component of Wii Sports is limited but still beneficial. For residents who rarely leave their rooms or are unwilling to stick to an exercise regimen, the Wii motivates them to be active. “Some residents resist therapy and exercise because they don’t want to participate and find it more like work,” says Janet Daly, nursing home administrator at MediLodge of Monroe, MI. “With the Wii, they are willing to participate because they think it is a game and fun, which ultimately results in exercise while playing.”

In addition, while they may not work up a sweat during play, the residents are working on other faculties. Playing the Wii boosts hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, balance, and everyday motor skills, such as sitting, standing, and stepping while being focused on another task. “I don’t think they realize all the benefits; they’re doing balance and strength and a lot of different things just getting in and out of their chairs to get up and do what they need to do,” says Kerry Wein, fitness director at Spring House Estates, an ACTS retirement life community in Lower Gwynedd, PA.

There are benefits outside the physical realm as well. “So many residents who didn’t really come out of their apartments are now getting together in groups and playing,” adds Wein. “So it’s been extremely beneficial both from the social aspect as well as the therapeutic aspect.”

Alburger agrees, saying that people who never would have befriended one another are connected by their common interest in using the Wii. She notices that even older adults who just watch others play garner benefits. “Even in watching, they’re cheering and they’re getting into it; there’s camaraderie there,” she says.

The residents notice beneficial influences, too. “[The Wii] is one of the most positive things we do around here,” says Henry Braun, a Spring House Estates resident who plays about three times per week. “There are … people who may not even be hardly able to walk, and they get up and they start playing and it just opens their life up; they become more outgoing and they have something to look forward to.”

Jean Van Horn, a Brittany Pointe Estates resident who plays several times per week, agrees: “To me it’s more an attitude, a mental attitude because there are times with given some health problems, you fight depression. … So this has been a great asset for me to look forward to something, to get out, to see other people. Because if in fact you don’t push yourself here to get involved in myriad things they have going on, you tend to sit in the apartment and, for me, this is what generates depression.”

The gaming system also has the potential to integrate young people into older adult communities. Shrewsbury Lutheran Retirement Village in Pennsylvania, obtained its Wii through one resident’s granddaughter’s ambition. Hannah, aged 11 at the time, whose grandmother, Harriett Gifford, is a resident in the community, decided the nursing home needed a Wii. With the help of her mother, Hannah started fund-raising efforts through a Chick-fil-A program, eventually raising enough to purchase a gaming system for the elder community.

It’s fitting that the Wii continues to carry cross-generational benefits. “We had grandchildren visiting and playing the Wii with their grandparents—bringing everyone onto one level and eliminating the awkwardness that youths can sometimes associate with visiting loved ones in continuing care retirement communities,” says Kristin Fowler, MPT, a physical therapist at Shrewsbury.

While these older adults spend only limited time on the Wii, there can be some cause for concern. Although the social and physical interactions offer a wealth of benefits, it’s still possible for older adults to overexert themselves to the point of injury. Most incidents occur when players become overexcited and strain their joints or muscles. However, it’s important to remember that Wii activities don’t replace fitness programs, but they’re a good addition, Alburger says, especially for those who find it difficult to maintain an exercise regimen.

Residents and staff alike agree: The positive social influence on the residents makes these systems worth every penny. “It’s really done some miracles around here for people that you didn’t expect could do anything,” says Alburger.

“Their increased activity decreases the chance for a decline in mobility, loosens up their arthritic joints, and may decrease the chance of pneumonia by exercising their lungs,” says Daly, adding, “Our goal is always to keep our residents healthy, happy, motivated, moving, and active.”

— Brandi Redding is an editorial assistant at Aging Well.