At the Sudbury Senior Center, Anne and Mike Meixsell play bowling and golf on Nintendo Wii Sports. At the Sudbury Senior Center, Anne and Mike Meixsell play bowling and golf on Nintendo Wii Sports. (Globe Staff / Pat Greenhouse)

Wii gets seniors back in the games

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Correspondent / April 13, 2008

It's the sort of high-tech gaming setup that you'd expect their grandchildren to master.

But at Sudbury's Fairbank Senior Center, and elsewhere throughout the state, elders like 77-year-old Lael "Mike" Meixsell and his wife, Anne, 74, are playing Nintendo's Wii gaming system in growing numbers. They are using the technology to rekindle their interest in baseball, bowling, tennis and other games in a low-impact, virtual world where they can exercise their aging muscles and not get hurt.

The Meixsells are among dozens of seniors who use the Wii system in Sudbury.

"It's good exercise, but you don't even have to stand up," said Meixsell, taking his wife's hands to show her how to properly hold a remote. "Keep your fingers on the A and B buttons," he told her. A retired physicist and mathematician, Meixsell loves the Wii tennis and golf games, part of a basic software package called Wii Sports.

"Well I like to stand when I play," Anne said, tightening the wrist strap on her controller. She prefers baseball because it reminds her of her softball team on Long Island in the 1940s.

"You don't have to, but it keeps the joints moving," Mike said.

Officials say that dozens of senior centers and rehabilitation and assisted living facilities throughout the state have installed the consoles and controllers that simulate real-world actions - like swinging a bat or a golf club or rolling a bowling ball - on television screens.

"From what we've seen, it seems that elders are really enjoying this piece of technology," said Alison Goodwin, spokeswoman for the state Executive Office of Elder Affairs. Goodwin said her agency hasn't conducted any empirical research into the possible benefits of playing, but early observations have been very positive.

"We've seen that Wii supports and promotes improved coordination and balance for elders," said Emmett Schmarsow, director of council on aging programs for the elder affairs office. "We are delighted that more COAs are deciding to utilize this very exciting piece of technology."

Goodwin said the games also provide a social component.

"It's a really new and exciting opportunity for elders to socialize with each other, and it really bridges the gap between elders and younger individuals to engage in intergenerational activities," she said.

Sudbury's Council on Aging director, Kristin Kiesel, agrees.

"When I saw my grandson play with his Wii, I realized that having a Wii would be a great way for seniors to get some exercise and range-of-motion stretches, and a good way to give access to things like bowling and tennis that we otherwise do not have room for here at the center," said Kiesel.

"It also seemed like a good way to foster intergenerational activity, since seniors will be able to play with their grandchildren, and even impress them with their skill."

Denise Kaigler, vice president of corporate affairs for Nintendo of America, said the company designed the system, which was released in 2006, so it "could be played by everyone in the family, from 5 to 95." She said Nintendo welcomes the interest from elders.

"It is exciting to see that it's been such a big hit in senior centers," Kaigler said. "Anyone can pick it up and start playing instantly, regardless of their age or prior experience with gaming. Games like Wii Sports are more active and get people up off the couch and moving. That's important for seniors."

The Wii consoles cost about $300 and come with two controllers and the basic sports package, which offers baseball, tennis, bowling, golf, and boxing. The console can accommodate up to four controllers.

In Sudbury, where the Wii was a gift from Wingate Healthcare, which runs a nursing home and rehabilitation center in town, seniors sign up for sessions up to two hours long.

In neighboring Lincoln, the Wii is set up on a big projection screen at the senior center.

"People who have tried it have had fun," said Karen Santucci, the director of the town's Council on Aging. "We've had about 40 people come play it on an individual basis."

Santucci said that to increase interest, the senior center is going to start forming leagues and make it a more structured activity.

Kiesel said Sudbury hopes to be able to challenge Lincoln's elders to a tennis match soon.

Moira Munns, director of Natick's Council on Aging, said her agency is debating whether to buy a Wii or a science-based audiovisual device, from San Francisco-based Posit Science Corp., that offers "brain training" products, according to its website.

"If I had unlimited funds, I'd get some of both," Munns said.

Sunrise Assisted Living of Wayland has counted Wii as one of their activities for the last eight months. They mix it in with other physical and mental activities like stretching, chair exercise, balloon volleyball, cards, and puzzles.

"We have mostly gentlemen that play, mostly bowling, but we have one that loves to play tennis," said Susan Hobart, Sunrise's activities director.

Hobart said Wii players include residents who have memory problems.

"They have to be told how to do it a couple of times - you have to let go of the B button when you throw it - but once they figure it out, they really get the knack of it," she said.

"You start to see them remembering how they used to play bowling, the technique and the moving of the arm and hips, that sort of thing."

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