Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

August 12, 2013

Food for Thought - Games improve mental acuity of seniors

Jo Anne Embleton
Jacksonville Daily Progress

JACKSONVILLE — Studying the cards in a discard pile on the table, Doletta Moore patiently waits for fellow Bonner Street Plaza resident Anna Young to play her hand during a recent game of SkipBo.

“You've got an eight,” she points out to Young, 87, who is chatting with a visitor as she looks over cards.

Laying the card down, Young gleefully points out that she also has a nine. And a 10. And an 11.

“And a 12,” she adds, placing a wild card on the pile. Seconds later, she's about to retract the last card because she's located a face card with the needed number, but 103-year-old Edrie Hacker, chides her.

“Nah-ah-ah – you can't do that because you already turned that one loose,” Hacker calls out, pointing to the top card in the pile.

Smiling, Young pulls her hand back and teases her friend, “Yes, Sarge!”

Residents' friendly – sometimes competitive – games aren't just a means for socializing, says BSP activities director Peaches Clayborne; it's a way to help keep their minds stimulated.

“We do group projects and things like games for the minds, and exercises for the mind to keep them stimulated,” Clayborne said. “And when you've been doing this for so long, you know what works and what doesn't, and how to fit (an activity) with a resident.”

According to a Posit Science study done several years ago, known as “The IMPACT Study Design,” seniors today are different from their predecessors.

“They live longer, have lower disability rates and are proactive in demanding higher levels of healthcare,” according to a document detailing study results.

And because this particular group is swelling – “the U.S. population of senior citizens is set to double in the next 25 years, reaching 72 million by 2030,” according to the document – addressing memory needs is as important as addressing other health needs.

An aging brain slows down, and is less and less able to keep up with the rapid pace of incoming information; “it must relearn to take in this information at the speed of every day life,” the document states.

Because an aging brain processes information “less accurately,” confusion and problems can result – therefore adaptivity in information intake must also be addressed, it added.

And that's where games – be they board games, card games, puzzles or even computer-based interactive games – help meet a need.

“I've seen studies where they followed people who have done stuff like into their 50s and they had lower risk of Alzheimers, of all kinds of things – in some cases, even, I've seen a lower risk of stroke and other cardioneuropathy types of issue,” said Chris Taylor, executive director of Cherokee County Public Health. “I don't understand that link, but it's been interesting to see.”

He likened seniors' activity to help keep their minds sharp to that of the learning process for a small child.

“Younger kids' neurons are rapidly firing and (regenerating) and obviously, the older we get, those neurons die – we don't get as many anymore,” he explained.

As with a child, “we're trying to get all those connections to take place … we're trying to get (seniors) to expand their minds,” he said.

While board games and card games are long-standing favorites, even working crossword pules or computer-based games can be great ways to help boost a senior's mental cognitive functions.

“There's a lot of science out there that's suggesting that even things like playing Wii sports or Wii games – even having an environment where you have contrasting colors and things – actually causes both sides of the brain to work together simultaneously” Taylor said, thus presenting a new challenge, rather than staying mired in those “mundane tasks or things that you do every day that you've already learned.

“You make coffee in the morning, you do the same thing over and over you get into a habit, and you're only using a certain number of neurons that are not communicating on both sides of the brain. Anything that's not sedentary and repetitive is going to cause those neurons to fire as they should,” he said.

Throughout Smith County, several opportunities are available to seniors who want join in the fun. Churches and organizations often host game days, while groups like the Jacksonville-based Mah Jongg group meet on a regular basis.

In Rusk, though there has been a hiatus while renovation of the local civic center, cards games and dominos have been offered there three days a week for a while now.

Mostly, seniors such as herself enjoy the camaraderie and the chance to continue playing games they enjoyed as children, said Hacker of Bonner Street Plaza resident.

“I came from a large family, and we all lived in the same town – we had lots of kids and we had lots going on with family” in their Southeastern Oklahoma hometown, she said. “When I was married, before I lost my husband, we played family games all the time: Rummy, and Skipbo and Uno and bridge. We played lots of games.”

Now, BSP residents enjoy gathering in the community room for games of cards or bingo or dominoes, bonding over the experience.

“When you have a group, it makes it a lot of fun,” Hacker said, as Young joked that the best part about playing with fellow residents is the winning.

“But we have fun,” Young laughed.