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Positives of play: Games ‘exercise’ the mind, body and spirit

By: Lisa Russell

Residents of The Oaks at Bethesda enjoy the brain stimulation, camaraderie and fun of playing cards. [Bethesda Health Group photo]

For older adults, keeping the mind active is just as important as maintaining physical fitness and strength. But brain “workouts” don’t have to be drudgery – exercising the brain can be made both easy and enjoyable by playing a variety of board and card games, doing online puzzles and playing video games, and participating in group game activities.  

Scientific research backs up the brain health benefits of game-playing as well. For example, a 2017 Mayo Clinic study of nearly 2,000 people over age 70 specifically linked the mental stimulation provided by playing games, engaging in craft activities, computer use, and social activities with a significantly lower risk of Mild Cognitive Impairment [MCI], a condition connected to Alzheimer’s disease.  

But the benefits of play go beyond sharpening the mind alone. Simply having fun with others when playing a game helps to keep seniors engaged in life and avoid the health dangers of isolation, according to nationally certified activity consultant Tara Burrow, a life enrichment coordinator for Bethesda Health Group in St. Louis.

“It’s hard for adults to make friends after age 50. Getting together with a group and playing games is an easy and great way to socialize, especially if it’s something you can do in teams,” Burrow said. She listed a wide variety of games, including trivia competitions, card games, strategy games, and games that combine mental and physical dexterity, such as mini-golf, darts and Wii bowling, as great options for a group of players.

“Different types of games exercise different parts of the brain. Strategy games work the frontal lobe area, whereas more physical games benefit the cerebellum,” continued Burrow, who currently works with senior residents at Hawthorne Place in St. Louis County. Physical games that require standing and movement, like shuffleboard, ping-pong or horseshoes, are also excellent for maintaining balance and hand-eye coordination, Burrow added. 

For older adults who do have some form of cognitive impairment, playing simplified versions of games like Rummy or Uno using fewer rules can keep them enjoyable and minimize frustration.  

“Easy trivia games that provide two choices, or interactive games like charades that involve physical mimicking rather than memorization all stimulate the brain, but also help them to live in the moment without thinking too much about all the rules and regulations,” Burrow said. 

Because everyone’s capabilities are at different levels as they age, it’s a good idea to pre-plan if you are planning games for a group, she advised. Whether you’re talking about residents of a retirement community or a group of friends or family members meeting at home, 

Of course, there’s also a wide variety of games and activities that seniors can do on their own, to work their brains at the level that challenges them individually. Sudoku, crossword or jigsaw puzzles, solitaire, word scrambles and a nearly infinite number of “brain games” available online are all great choices. “Anything that helps you break away from just sitting and watching TV” benefits brain health, Burrow said. 

As an added benefit, playing a game can also smooth the way for relaxing visits between family members of different generations, helping to defuse the stress and awkwardness caused by not knowing what to say or do. After all, “Come on over to dad’s for game night!” sounds a lot more appealing than “You should visit dad more often.” 

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