For older adults, games represent so much more than a fun pastime; they offer an array of mental and physical benefits.

The biggest perk seniors get from playing games comes from the interactions they have with others. Approximately 20% to 30% of seniors regularly experience isolation and loneliness. Unfortunately, loneliness doesn’t just make seniors feel sad; it also harms their health, increasing their odds of cognitive decline, heart disease and even death. When senior living communities include a variety of games in their programming, their residents are both healthier and happier.

A cognitive boost

Card, trivia or puzzle games improve attention span and slow mental decline. Popular options include Sudoku, crossword puzzles, Scrabble and Qwirkle, a game that has players match tile colors and shapes, requiring pattern recognition and strategy skills.

When working with older adults with dementia and other memory ailments, fill-in-the-blank word games can help them retain language skills and vocabulary. Seniors with memory issues also can learn to play more complex games — if you teach them slowly. First, try playing a simplified version of a game, stripping away any extraneous rules. Once the group has the hang of the basics, slowly add in more complex rules.

At Bethesda Hawthorne Place, an assisted living and memory care community in the St. Louis area, residents are introduced to the most basic version of Uno, without any skips or reversals. After a few weeks, additional cards are added in, and residents are able to adapt and modify as they learn additional rules. This technique sharpens their cognitive skills and give them a boost of confidence.

Mental games also benefit older adults without memory issues, helping them keep their minds active and sharp. Studies show that seniors who participate in mentally stimulating activities decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other dementia by 75%.

Stronger seniors

Physical games that improve strength, balance and movement can be a “sneaky” way to encourage older adults to get more exercise.

Games such as cornhole, washers and lawn darts require residents to stand for extended periods of time and exercise balance, visual perception and arm strength, improving overall motor skills. Wii bowling is another great option for older adults, burning up to 176 calories in half an hour, according to a 2010 study by the American College of Sports Medicine.

Many physical games include a mental component as well, requiring players to keep score. Lawn darts and cornhole, for instance, call for players to earn a specific number of points, exercising seniors’ strategic thinking skills. 

Encouraging play

Although many residents at senior living communities engage in games on their own, most communities also include games on the calendar each week. The following tactics can help encourage residents to participate:

  • Reward participants. Prizes can help entice reluctant participants, especially if they are shy or new to the community. For these individuals, games actually are an ideal way to meet people and begin developing new friendships. The act of playing the game takes the pressure off of finding a topic to talk about, making it easier to socialize.
  • Encourage support. Even if a resident isn’t interested in the specific game being played, you can encourage him or her to participate as a cheerleader. That way, the resident still will be able to develop relationships with other players. 
  • Develop a buddy system. Pair up residents who have common interests or hobbies. If they have a good time together, then they’ll be more likely to show up next time, because they know their friend is going to be there.
  • Create friendly competition. Hold events that pair staff with residents to compete in relay races, wheelchair races and similar games. Beside being a fun activity, this tactic also helps residents feel more comfortable with the senior living community staff members.
  • Make games accessible. Ensure that board games and jigsaw puzzles are easily accessible so residents can enjoy then with family members when they visit.

Whether older adults are playing with other residents, family members or staff members, it’s important to remember that it’s not just about playing the game correctly; it’s about being in the moment and having fun together.

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