Nintendo, like youth, is wasted on the young

Hot game system Wii takes elderly by storm

December 15, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,Sun reporter

Lucile "Suey" McLean eyes the three X's on the scoreboard.

"That's it, babe," she shouts. "That's a turkey."

Nina Finn then steps up, murmuring, "Kiss, kiss, kiss," as she coaxes her ball toward the pins. The last one falls, and Finn shimmies past her opponents, saying, "They want me to do my wiggle."

These might seem like moves made for the neighborhood bowling alley. But to these retirees, actually heaving a ball down a lane of polished wood is a pursuit that is, well, a bit behind the times.

At the Oak Crest Village retirement community, the Nintendo Wii is what's hot.

The video system, which allows gamers to simulate athletic moves and produce on-screen results, seems to have been designed for the young. But try telling that to McLean and Finn, along with Stryker, Little Sib and the other members of the Mighty Oaks video bowling team.

The Wii, one of the hottest holiday gifts this year, is a big hit with the seniors in Parkville and at other retirement communities across the country. At Oak Crest, the retirees like to stroke virtual tennis and golf balls - and, perhaps most of all, bowl a few games.

The Mighty Oaks, one of several video bowling teams at Oak Crest, don matching blue bowling shirts for competitions against teams miles away, with cameras capturing the matches and post-game interviews for the retirement community's television station and, eventually, YouTube.

Louise "Queen of Spares" Ross says her 13-year-old granddaughter is a little envious that she gets to play the hard-to-find game system.

"She got upset because granny beat her," the vivacious 65-year-old East Baltimore native says.

At Oak Crest, the video system is hooked up to a 60-inch, flat-screen TV to boot.

Erickson Retirement Communities first purchased a Wii about a year ago for residents at a campus in Illinois, said Kate Newton Schmelyun, a company spokeswoman. The company now has them in its 18 retirement communities, including Oak Crest and Charlestown in Catonsville. Nintendo donated some of the systems, the spokeswoman said.

Not that an actual bowling lane would be out of place at Oak Crest. Amenities at the 87-acre community include a bistro-style pub, two banks, three hair salons and an indoor swimming pool.

But the remote-controlled video system is easier on the joints. The retirees can bowl in their orthopedic shoes, and they don't have to worry about slipping on the waxed wood floor of a real bowling lane.

The less strenuous activity was very appealing to Ron Rafferty, a 65-year-old retired Towson firefighter who has had numerous back injuries.

"With this, I don't have any problems," says Rafferty, who lives at Oak Crest with his wife. "It's healthy for me. And we have a good time down here."

So much fun that, at times, the hollering and hoopla attract the attention of other residents. The widescreen TV is in an area near a curving set of stairs that open to a community room above.

"Everyone laughs and carries on," says Frank Price. "It's a beautiful time of fellowship."

Price, one of the "after-dinner" regulars, rolls a strike.

"There, Gordie," the retired BGE engineer shouts. "Take that."

He passes the remote.

Suey McLean, an 85-year-old grandmother dressed in a dark blue dress, knocks down seven pins.

"That takes skill," she teases her teammates. "Not everybody can do that. Most people would knock 'em all down."

Price leaves one pin on his next turn.

"Poor baby," McLean teases.

"Don't pick on me," he says, smiling and returning to his seat next to his 85-year-old "lady friend," Marguerite Burgess.

Price, 80, had never played a video game, much less seen a Wii system before it made its debut in the spring. But the seniors saw immediately why teenagers get so into gaming.

"It's kind of like eating peanuts," says Gordon Moler, an 84-year-old retired engineer from South Baltimore. "You can't quit once you start."

Moler, who said his three children and six grandchildren "get a kick out of" his gaming exploits, doesn't count the Wii play toward his exercise routine. He still works out at the health club three times a week.

Erickson staff, and other geriatric experts, don't suggest that Wii bowling has, for example, the same physical benefits as walking on a treadmill.

"I encourage older adults to participate in physical activities they enjoy, because they're more likely to sustain those behaviors," says Dr. Michele Bellantoni, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and medical director at the Hopkins Bayview Care Center.

Still, the Wii system is seen by many as ideal for an older population, especially those with health problems. Other retirement communities beyond Erickson have the system, according to news reports. At the Perry Point Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Cecil County, doctors introduced the Wii system about three months ago to patients, said Dr. Mark Heuser, director of geriatrics and long-term care there.

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