Video Games Provide a Fun Mental (and Physical) Workout for Seniors

aging in place technologyVideo games are growing in popularity with the older generation—in one study, older adults were asked to rank how often they used video games, and almost a third reported playing at least once a week, and over 17% reported playing every day. Although we sometimes think of video games as a “guilty pleasure”—a way to tune out and enjoy a few mellow hours doing nothing—that “down time” might actually be more productive than you think. Studies show that video games can keep our minds sharp and our reflexes nimble as we age, so the growing popularity of video games among older adults could actually be great news for the health of older generations. As a caregiver, bringing video gaming into your loved one’s life can provide a valuable opportunity for them to flex their mental muscles, while having a good time with friends and family.

Clinically Documented Benefits of Gaming

According to Jason Allaire, who works with North Carolina State University’s “Gains Through Gaming” Lab, researchers have found evidence that shows gaming offers benefits for older adults, including improved:

    • reflexes
    • processing speed
    • memory
    • attention skills
    • spatial abilities

In one game of Mario Party, for example, players run through a gamut of minigames that require quick thinking and spatial memory. The fun situation that the game sets up makes for a relaxing and upbeat environment, while the minigames themselves are serious mental workouts. Matching minigames require the player to remember which cards and wood blocks contain certain symbols, and quickly be able to recall and match those items within a timed challenge. It’s an ideal chance for your loved one to push their reaction times and short-term memory skills, while having a great time racing to the finish line. Gaming can also keep seniors connected.

Stay Connected with Friends, Family through Gaming

Teenagers have long been aware of the power of video games to bring people together, with social game platforms like Xbox Live enjoying widespread popularity. But for many older adults, playing Halo with a community of hardcore gamers might not be as appealing as competing against their peers or loved ones. For those that would prefer to compete with other gamers within their demographic, a great alternative is senior-centric game platforms like SeniorGamers that connect older gamers.

And of course, gaming with the family is always fun—it’s a pastime all ages can enjoy. I know my family did; MarioKart was our favorite weeknight activity. My grandmother would always play as Yoshi, celebrating exuberantly after each victory, as we groaned in good-natured defeat. Video game makers cater to that family dynamic by making a wide range of family-friendly games that appeal to all ages.

Good games for family gaming include:

  • Xbox Bowling– Xbox Bowling is a social game that offers simulated, 10-pin lane bowling.
  • Mario Party– Mario Party is a visually delightful game that moves at a slow pace by a roll of dice, so it’s more suited to older adults than the breakneck speed of other Nintendo games like Smash Bros.
  • Wii Sports– With Wii Sports, you can play games like tennis without leaving the living room. This is especially great for seniors who love athletics but are no longer physically able to play.
  • Beatles Rock Band– Beatles Rock Band lets older adults play along with the Fab Four, recreating classic hits that the whole family will love listening to.

Once you find out which games your loved one enjoys playing with the family, you can always ask for recommendations at your local video game store for similar games. If your family loves getting together for Rock Band, you might ask for another game with an upbeat soundtrack, and might find a Wii Fit game that couples classic hits with a gentle workout for your loved one. Once you open up the world of video game possibilities, you may find that your loved one has a reignited passion for something like tennis or music. By helping them explore new and old interests through different games, you offer your loved one a chance to build synaptic connections and combat the effects of aging on the brain.

Different Gaming Genres Combat Different Aspects of Aging

Playing a wide variety of gaming genres can help maximize the mental workout that your loved one gets from gaming. According to Anne McLaughlin, PhD and psychologist, novelty is the key to developing brainpower: “If you’ve done Sudoku your whole life, you’re not doing anything new,” she says. “Completely new tasks form new pathways in your brain. So it seems more likely that something challenging and new would be a lot more effective than something that’s challenging but you’ve been doing it forever.” So, if your loved one has been clocking 40 hours a week on WoW for the last decade, they’re probably not forging any new synaptic pathways by continuing to play the same game.

To get your loved one out of their routine, go for games they’ve never tried before. Historic games can trigger their memory and promote attention and critical thinking, while physically involved games like Rock Band or Wii Sports promote physical activity. In fact, the arm motion involved in Wii Bowling was actually found to boost the heart rate of senior gamers by about 40% in one study.  Roleplaying and world-building skills are also beneficial for attention-building, and can provide the uplifting effect of creative activity.

Finding a Controller That Suits Your Loved One

As a kid, my brothers and I each had a favorite controller—mine was the zippy yellow one, and I just felt faster and better when using it. But, for older adults, finding a controller that suits them goes beyond choosing a cool color. Your loved one will need something that’s going to be easy to use and facilitates a good experience with gaming. If your loved one has physical disabilities that prevent them from using the original controllers, there’s a whole community out there that’s dedicated to exploring ways to modify game controllers and provide “expansion packs” that make games accessible to people with different physical capabilities. These range from DIY instructionals, like this clever fix that modifies that Rock Band drum kit to be played without foot pedals, to more highly-engineered solutions, like those AbleGamer provides in their “Expansion Packs:” packages of assistive gaming technologies for people in nursing homes, or other gamers with disabilities. For computer games, a range of existing assistive technologies can adapt the hardware interface of your loved one’s computer to make it easier to use.

Getting Your Loved One’s Game On

Video games can be as healthy as they are fun for our older generation—and the whole family can enjoy gaming together at grandma or grandpa’s house. If you’re considering gifting your loved one with a video game console, or simply helping them find some online games that they enjoy playing, shop around for games that provide a solid mental or physical workout while also falling within their interests. Also, don’t forget to pick a controller that feels comfortable for them. By helping your loved one develop a love for video games, you’ll be providing them with an engaging pastime that keeps their faculties sharp. No matter who comes in first place during your next round of MarioKart, video games are a win-win for both caregivers and their loved ones.

At IOA, we’re committed to helping caregivers and families find ways to stay healthy and happy at home. Contact us to learn more about options for older gamers, or for caregiver counseling and support.  

 

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Institute on Aging

Committed to offering thoughtful discussions and resources to older adults, their families, and their caregivers.

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