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A game for the ages

Email|Print| Text size + By Christine Wallgren
Globe Correspondent / January 20, 2008

Eighty-one-year-old Henry Milliken hadn't rolled a bowling ball down an alley in 40 years, but he was red hot during a recent bowling competition with friends in Duxbury.

Milliken bowled three strikes in a row, and was top scorer for the day, although interest in the score was minimal. Of greater interest at the Duxbury senior center was the challenge of virtual Wii bowling.

The world may think of video games as the domain of the young, but senior citizens across the region are proving otherwise.

A fast-growing number of area elders are caught up in the Nintendo craze. Marshfield and Plymouth senior centers, like Duxbury's, have their own Wii systems. Plans for intra-center tournaments are in the works.

"We're getting a little old to get out there and bowl like we used to," says Milliken, so the virtual version is welcomed. "It felt great. It's so much like the real thing."

The Nintendo Wii System came out in November of 2006. The Wii sports program includes virtual tennis, golf, baseball, bowling, and boxing. Players hold a wireless console that detects three-dimensional motion as they execute the same arm movement they would employ if swinging a racket or bat, rolling a ball, or throwing a jab. The simulated action is played out on a television screen.

Nintendo did not expect that the Wii sports program would be a big hit with seniors.

"When Wii came along, we knew it was easy enough for anyone to play, but we were surprised with how quickly the community of retirees and active seniors took to it," wrote Anka Dolecki, Nintendo of America's director of public relations, in an e-mail to the Globe. "The phenomenon developed on its own and has been growing since."

Dolecki said seniors are as much a part of Nintendo's outreach now as any other group. "Nintendo had a booth at AARP's Life@50+ expos in both 2006 and 2007," Dolecki said. "People often ask us how many seniors are playing Wii or what the statistics are. Considering that prior to Wii, the number of console-playing seniors was about zero, I'll say it's an infinite jump."

Local seniors are taking to the craze - with a little bit of help from younger friends.

A local student set up the Marshfield center's system, said director Carol Hamilton. In Duxbury, two 12-year-olds came to the senior center and offered a training session.

"I think its popularity is just beginning," said Hamilton. "It allows for recreation and exercise." Senior center directors across the state are starting to talk about Wii via e-mail, she said.

The game is showing up in senior housing developments as well as senior centers. Linden Ponds, an over-62 retirement community in Hingham, has a Wii set up in one of its clubhouse living rooms. Meredith Scott, the director of resident life, said her staff is convinced of the Wii system's benefits for seniors, such as improved blood pressure and weight control.

It is also a great way to socialize, she said, and offers intergenerational opportunities. "One aspect of it that's kind of neat is to see grandchildren going down there to use it with Grandma and Grandpa," Scott said.

Joanne Moore, director of the Duxbury Senior Center, became interested in getting a Wii for the seniors after reading about the physical and social benefits of virtual sports for that age group. Moore was familiar with Wii, since her 12-year-old son was an avid player, but she had never thought of it for seniors. That was about a year ago.

"I wrote to Nintendo, thinking we had nothing to lose, and asked them to donate a system, but they turned me down," Moore said. "Then I got a gift box left on my desk one day before Christmas." Someone donated one.

"Once we had it, the challenge was learning the technology," Moore said. "So we enlisted the kids." Moore's 12 year-old son, along with the son of activity coordinator Linda Hayes, became the trainers.

"The reception has been great," Hayes said. "We had to recruit participants initially. They heard the word 'video' and shied away. We told them there would be a little button-pushing, but not a lot."

And now? "Just exposing them to the Wii is all it's taken."

A weight-loss support group is using the virtual sports program, and interest has quickly spread to other Duxbury seniors.

Moore hopes that seniors will bring their grandchildren to the center to enjoy an afternoon of Wii together. She plans to organize some grandparent-grandchild teams, as well as tournaments.

Virtual golf has also proved to be highly popular at the center. And a handful have indulged in virtual boxing - one of the Wii system's more rigorous offerings. Some days, the group enjoys a mix of sports, since making the switch can be done at the press of a couple of buttons.

In Plymouth, Kim Manion, director of elder affairs, said the system was supplied by the Cordage Commerce Center, the landlord that leases the town space for its senior center in Cordage Park.

"We only got it a week ago, and we've set it up in the room where the seniors play cards," Manion said.

"The seniors were really intrigued. It's going to be great for eye-hand coordination."

Once Marshfield and Plymouth have established programs, Moore, of Duxbury, is hoping the three senior centers can engage in friendly tournaments. She also intends to eventually purchase another Wii program called "Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree," to help keep the seniors' mental faculties sharp. The program offers 15 activities that require memory, visualization, and math skills.

For now, seniors at the Duxbury center are happy enough to compete against one another. On one recent day, 87-year-old Peggy Sayce dropped in to watch the group, drawn by the familiar hollow crash of scattering pins, and the chorus of virtual cheers that blended with those of the real-life spectators. Good-humored teasing and words of encouragement were flying as furiously as the balls.

Sayce, who had been an avid bowler until a bout with encephalitis 10 years ago made her balance uncertain, was quickly drawn into the action and threw a spare her first time out. It felt good, she said.

Tom Corn, 70, gave tennis a try. His eye-hand coordination stood him in good stead. But after several overhead swings to execute the serve, he handed the remote to someone else. His arm was getting tired.

Sheila Perry, 72, said she was secretly sharpening her skills on Wii. "I'm not telling my grandkids," she said. "I'm just going to go over there and play."

Christine Wallgren can be reached at CLWallgren@aol.com.

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