By Abbie Brown

meadville tribune intern

SAEGERTOWN — At age 78, Loretta Longo likes how boxing keeps her active and takes her mind off of the everyday things that may bog it down.

Bobbie Munshower, 61, loves to box, too, noticing that it helps her muscles stay strong. And she’s getting very good at bowling.

However, their boxing and bowling are “virtual,” done via Nintendo’s Wii video game system as they sit in front of a large, flat-screen TV in the activities room at the Crawford County Care Center at Saegertown.

Longo has lived at the care center since last October. The center started using the Wii system in January as part of its restorative exercise program, hosting a day full of Wii events every Wednesday, and it’s already seen great results. The Wii is an interactive video game system that requires players to use physical gestures such as wrist and arm movements to control movement on a video screen. And, according to Longo, it has been easy and very beneficial to her health.

Either playing against each other in pairs, or playing on their own to beat their personal goals and scores, 15 to 20 care center residents take 20-minute shifts in those Wednesday go-rounds. With one screen and two handsets, it takes most of the day before they get their fill of Wii games such as boxing, tennis and bowling.

“I like playing the Wii as a form of exercise because it is new to me and it is not something that I get to do every day,” Longo said. “It keeps my mind busy so I am not worrying or thinking about other things.”

Munshower, whose been at the center for eight weeks and started playing the Wii three weeks ago, has already seen physical improvements. “I have noticed how my hand-and-eye coordination has

greatly increased since I’ve been playing the Wii,” she said. Although Munshower had never played a video game before, she said it was extremely easy to learn, and says it is a good social opportunity for all the residents.

According to Sherry Barzak, activity director of the care center, the residents enjoy the sports offered via the Wii more than the center’s regular physical activities. “It has a great effect on them when they get together to play it. I’ve seen one resident who never smiles, finally smile when she started playing the Wii,” said Barzak.

Besides the obvious physical impact, those smiles point to another key therapeutic opportunity. The residents have a better chance of socialization when they get together and play the games.

“It was odd introducing the whole video game concept to them, but they grew to love it,” Barzak said. “It is good for their overall health and it helps them with their balance and hand-and-eye coordination, which is often difficult for them.”

At a national level, the Wii has found its way into many rehabilitation and care centers.

“In the Wii system, because it’s kind of a game format, it does create this kind of inner competitiveness,” said James Osborn of Southern Illinois Healthcare, who oversees rehabilitation services at Herrin Hospital in southern Illinois. “Even though you may be boxing or playing tennis against some figure on the screen, it’s amazing how many of our patients want to beat their opponent.”

The result of all this is more than clear in Saegertown. In April, the local care center plans to buy more Wii games including a set which features 25 popular games from classic carnivals, including Clown Splash, Milk Can Toss, Hoops, Day at the Races and Dunk Tank. In the new units, players we be able to win more than 250 upgradeable prizes ranging from a goldfish to giant stuffed animals.

And even staff morale is showing the effects. “The staff is having fun with the whole thing, too. One or two employees are designated to help with the Wii and they often end up playing it with the residents,” said Barzak.

As for the residents, they’re looking forward to the new games in April, and many said they would like to be able to play the Wii games more often than just on Wednesdays.

“Many long-term care facilities in the area are receiving a growing number of what we call ‘younger generation’ residents, aged late 50s to mid-70s, and this would be a perfect program for them as well because they probably know a little more about this part of our culture,” said Barzak.

Brown is a senior at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

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