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Seniors discovering video games

At Pitman Manor, the electronic gaming systems are offering "exercise and wellness."

As activities go, it may not rank quite as high as Bingo or the ice cream social, but Pitman Manor's Nintendo Wii gaming system is becoming a close second.

The continuing care retirement community in downtown Pitman purchased the system in September at EB Games in Glassboro. This Wii package - for under $300 - features such virtual challenges as bowling, baseball, golf and tennis and has become the buzz around this independent and assisted living community, where the average residents' age is well into the 80s.

"I really enjoy the activity," said Wilfred "Wil" Parsels Sr., 92, who hasn't missed a weekly session. A craftsman and lifelong sports-enthusiast from Westville Grove, Parsels has always been ready for a challenge - whether it was baseball, softball, basketball, shooting pool or marbles.

Pitman Manor Executive Director James Clancy likes Wii because it's more physical than its video counterparts. With Wii games, players actually simulate the motions of a sport, rather than just operate a joystick.

Clancy learned about using the gaming system from The Shores at Wesley Manor in Ocean City, one of 10 New Jersey member communities, along with Pitman Manor, of the United Methodist Homes.

"The introduction of the Wii is part of a LifeChoices initiative," said Clancy, adding that Pitman Manor is the pilot site for this program. "LifeChoices involves all of the elements of wellness - spiritual, physical, emotional. We have been trying to find innovative activities, dietary programs and menu options to stimulate wellness. The Wii gives residents a fun thing for exercise and wellness."

"It's the next best thing to the actual sport," said Alice Coghill, marketing assistant and LifeChoices' committee member, who learned where to purchase a Wii from her 9-year-old daughter. "Residents are seeing improvement in their flexibility, strength and eye-hand coordination."

The response has been so positive that Pitman's skilled nursing division is on a waiting list to acquire a system.

The Wii has become part of the weekly recreational schedule, said Farrah Dennis, activities director. Hourly sessions on Thursday afternoons draw a dozen or so residents.

While a different sport is introduced each week - with participants divided into teams - bowling is the favorite with baseball a strong second.

Dennis, a member of the New Jersey Activity Professionals Association, said that nationally, a lot of assisted living and nursing communities had introduced the Wii, including the Lehigh County Senior Center in Pennsylvania. Quite a few centers in South Jersey, such as the Cardinal Retirement Village in Washington Township, are trying to acquire a system, Dennis said.

Though too early for documented findings about its therapeutic benefits, physical therapist Donna Schnatz, who works to rehabilitate the skilled nursing residents, is excited about the possibilities - socially and physically. Schnatz is particularly interested in using the Wii to treat falls.

"This would be a wonderful and fun way to improve balance and range of motion," she said. "They are working body parts that they haven't worked in a long time, and it's much more stimulating than just rolling a ball."

Marcus Johnson, 35, activities assistant, sets up many of the community's recreational games, such as miniature golf, modified bowling and pool tournaments. He has been leading the Wii competitions and enjoying every minute.

"The game is addicting," said Johnson, adding that residents find it easy to play because the game controller actually vibrates.

Standing next to 77-year-old Carolyn Williams, Johnson instructs her in the use of controls. With the release of a button, Williams feels a vibration and the motion of the sport. Fellow team members cheer her on as the virtual bowling ball travels down the alley toward the pins on the large screen television.

Williams looks forward to the weekly games and the camaraderie. "I never really bowled before but this is fun and easy to learn," said Williams, an independent living resident. "Rather than have people sit in their rooms, this gets them out to do something. I think it's wonderful."

Johnson said: "They are getting some exercise and blood is flowing. It is also bringing residents closer together. There is competition, but in a fun, positive way."

Residents and staff alike are having so much fun that Clancy hopes to introduce some intergenerational tournaments - involving younger employees, as well as the grandchildren of residents.

Teen gamers, look out.