Virtual is a senior reality

Cathryn Creasy gazes at the 10 pins. She ambles back, winds up and releases. The bowling ball spins quickly down the lane. Eight pins fall. The spry senior smiles, waits and throws again.

“I got a spare!” Creasy cries out to two dozen fellow seniors at the Snellville Senior Center. The 80-year-old bowls once a week, but never before like this.

Move over, bingo. There’s a new game in town, and it’s playing for keeps at senior centers across metro Atlanta. For the past year, folks in their golden years have learned to bowl, box, golf and play tennis and baseball — virtually — with Nintendo’s Wii video game system.

“Senior centers are changing; bingo is not the big hit anymore,” said Kathi Clotfelter, senior program supervisor at the Snellville Senior Center. The center unwrapped its Wii in June but officially introduced the video game at an ice cream social last week.

“[Wii’s] a new thing for most centers,” said Clotfelter, who also heads the senior adults section of the Georgia Recreation and Parks Association.

And the numbers bear that out. The Atlanta Regional Commission aging program reports that of the 46 senior centers it works with in metro Atlanta, 21 recently obtained the console that took the nation by storm in 2006. That includes centers in Fulton, Cobb, Clayton, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties.

Five centers in Cobb County have hopped on the Wii bandwagon over the past year, with officials citing its social, physical and competitive benefits.

“It has really taken off,” said Kathy Lathem, a coordinator with Cobb County’s Senior Services Department. “Our seniors seem to love it because it gets them out of the chair.”

The North Cobb Senior Center in Acworth unveiled the Wii to about 30 seniors at a luncheon recently. An instructor briefed them on how to grip the controller, fasten the wrist strap and play ball — baseball and bowling, that is.

“Why Wiis are so great ... is that it keeps their minds active and keeps them physically active,” said Nysia Lanier, president of the Senior Citizen Council of Cobb County, which donated the game to the centers.

Physicians agree. Dr. David Burke, chairman of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at Emory University, said Wii can increase mobility, strengthen balance and enhance hand-eye coordination. But beyond the physical benefits, Burke said, Wii motivates players with its personalized touch of sound and scenery.

“It provide a rich environment, even if it is virtual, for people to engage in an activity,” Burke said. “Think of how many stairclimbers or exercise bikes end up as being clothes racks in people’s homes. This is just the beginning of what will be a revolution.”

In addition to Wii’s health benefits, officials in Cobb and Gwinnett say the game triggers socialization and fellowship and fuels the competitive spirit.

As Wii’s participation and popularity soar, especially for bowling, centers are beginning to compete in virtual tournaments, said Clotfelter of the Snellville Senior Center.

“We need to get serious about our competitions,” she said. “It may end up in the Senior Olympics. You never know.”

Jean King, 74, of Kennesaw used to bowl years ago. A first-time Wii player at the North Cobb Senior Center, King grabbed the controller and knocked down pins like a pro.

“It’s a fun game,” she said. “I think I’ll buy one for myself for Christmas.”