Gathering virtually: Older people embracing online gaming amid coronavirus pandemic

  • Adrienne Rodgers plays Words With Friends. (Roberta Wong Murray/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Adrienne Rodgers plays Words With Friends. (Roberta Wong Murray/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Adrienne Rodgers plays Words With Friends. (Roberta Wong Murray/Special to West Hawaii Today)

On the last Tuesday of each month, a group of about 20 caregivers and dementia patients gather in Hilo to play board games, eat lunch and socialize at the Memory Café Hui.

“It’s a social event for those who otherwise may not get out much,” said Patrick Toal, the Big Island coordinator for the Alzheimer’s Association. “And it’s heartwarming to see the smiles and laughter a simple activity can generate, especially after we’ve played games, which act as memory joggers. It’s almost like they were remembering an earlier time in life when memory challenges weren’t so prevalent or existed at all.”

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With the COVID-19 outbreak, the in-person gathering next week is off. But they’ll still get together to play games online, or by phone for those without computers. Participation has spiked to 27, who have registered for the virtual meeting.

“I’m not sure which platform we are using yet but it will be either Zoom, Blue Jeans or Webex. We are still working out the details,” Toal said. “It’s really easy though and typically just requires clicking on a link in an email we send out or calling a phone number we provide. Most kupuna we have worked with have had little trouble connecting.”

A volunteer tech expert is helping to make sure the Memory Café Hui, and the other support groups and caregiver boot camps offered by the Alzheimer’s Association on Hawaii Island continue even if they can’t meet in person, Toal said.

The move to playing games and holding meetings online comes amid a stereotype that older people are not capable of adopting to new technology. But that seems to be changing, especially in online gaming. And as the coronavirus causes kupuna to practice social distancing, technology may provide the means for people to stay socially active.

Take part-time Keauhou resident Adrienne Rodgers, 74, who plays word games online while socializing with friends from around the country via chat.

She plays up to 20 games at the same time on her iPhone, while texting and having a cup of coffee. She plays with friends she’s known since childhood and friends she made as a schoolteacher. But she’s also interacted with people she’s never met in person.

“I like puzzles, how to figure out things,” said Rodgers, who spends an hour a day or more playing games online. Rodgers likes the Words With Friends gaming app because her German fluency allows her to play in both languages.

“The game app has instant messaging, too, so I’m often texting my friends while we’re playing,” adds the multitasker. “It’s social interaction with people I can’t be with in person.” They text the latest gossip, exchange tidbits and make dates for future get-togethers.

A recent AARP study found a growing number of older, online gamers. About 44%of Americans 50 and older enjoy computer or app games at least once a month, up from 38% in 2016. That’s an estimated 51 million older gamers in the U.S., playing an average of five hours a week, compared to 40 million active players three years ago.

Like Rodgers, four out of 10 gamers say they are interactively engaging in social activity (instant messaging) while they are playing. The study also found that older women (49%) are more likely to play video games than older men (40%). That’s in sharp contrast to video game usage among people under 30, where 72% of young men play video games often or sometimes, compared to 49% of women.

The AARP research also reported that 85% of respondents continue to play in-person games, such as cards and puzzles. And Rodgers does that, too. The Keauhou resident fills out the daily crossword puzzle and regularly plays the parlor dice game Bunco and the domino game Mexican Train at rotating groups of friends’ homes.

COVID-19 has put a partial damper on Rodgers’ face-to-face get togethers, mostly for the sake of protecting her newest social connections — fraternal grand twins born a month ago.

“I did not go to Bunco because that gathering has 12 people, and I’m also not going to attend next week’s group because one of the players works at the hospital gift shop and I don’t want to expose the babies,” said Rodgers.

Rodgers is eager to get back to in-person gaming once social distancing ends and she’s thankful that she can still play games with other friends online.

After all, studies show a lifetime of playing games — both online and IRL (in real life) — is good for your brain health and also provides social interaction.

Dr. Patricia Blanquette of the John A. Burns School of Medicine agrees.

“Good nutrition, physical exercise, staying socially connected, and challenging the brain with games and puzzles all contribute to maintaining overall health as we age.”

Disrupt Aging is a column produced by AARP Hawaii, West Hawaii Today and The Hawaii Tribune-Herald. Roberta Wong Murray is an AARP volunteer seeking stories about people who are redefining their age. Contact her at rwongmurray@gmail.com or call 322-6886.

Playing Games

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If you want to try online gaming, AARP offers Brain Health games at games.aarp.org

To find out more about the Alzheimer’s Association Memory Café Hui, call Patrick Toal at (808) 518-6649.