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Ahead of the game

Wii helps seniors stay sharp and spry

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  • Story by Lisa Bruce
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: July 2, 2008
Vernan Barr plays the Nintendo Wii

Vernon Barr, a resident of TigerPlace, manipulates the Wii remote to control a virtual cow's movements. Barr rode real cows as a child.

Picture this: A man flies down a track on the back of a trusty steed. Just above the track, scarecrows appear. Whack! Whack! Whack! He topples them and barrels toward the finish line.

The rider is 92-year-old Vernon Barr, a resident of the Mizzou-affiliated senior community TigerPlace. The steed is a virtual Holstein cow.

Barr is playing Charge!, a Wii video game. With subtle tilts of the Wii remote, he controls his cow’s movements, guiding her down the track and jumping fences that pop up. Unlike most other video game systems, the Wii enables users to simulate real-life activities, such as bowling or golf, by holding the controllers while physically mimicking the acts of rolling a ball or swinging a club — or, in Barr’s case, steering a cow.

Wii is one of the newest attractions at TigerPlace, which is run collaboratively by Americare, the University of Missouri and the Sinclair School of Nursing. Residents live independently but also get the benefits of exercise classes, a wellness center, an on-call nurse, group dining and social activities. Ronda Lenzini, the residential community’s lifestyles coordinator, says TigerPlace aims to keep seniors living independently as long as possible.

More than entertainment

While earning her master’s degree in nursing at Mizzou, Jennie Siems, a registered nurse, studied whether the Wii had any impact on TigerPlace seniors’ level of activity. It turns out the Wii did.

“Residents of all types participated. Higher-mental-functioning residents and those with dementia were all able to participate,” says Siems. “I also found that one's physical abilities did not hinder participation.”

Ginger Besgrove, another TigerPlace resident, has been bowling with the Wii for about six months. She can sit in her wheelchair or stand if she chooses. Besgrove used to play on a bowling league and says the Wii experience, while not quite like bowling, is close.

“Anybody can play this,” says Lenzini. “You can do all of it seated … [or] standing. It’s amazing.”

Siems’s research indicates that the Wii will continue to have a positive impact on seniors’ activity levels.

Unlikely activities

Screenshot of cow riding

In the Wii game Charge! the player rides a cow down a track while toppling scarecrows, jumping fences and attempting to cross the finish line within 90 seconds. 

In addition to providing continued participation in sports and leisure activities, the Wii gives seniors a chance to engage in unlikely activities — like cow-riding.

Except in Barr’s case, that is.

As a child growing up on a farm, Barr had the job of bringing the cows back to the barn. The bull often lagged behind the rest of the herd. “We had a big old Hereford bull; he was just as gentle as he could be,” says Barr.

So what was Barr’s solution to the sluggish-bull problem? He would ride the reluctant bovine back to the barn.

Read more in:  Beyond CampusHealth & MedicineFamily & CommunityScience & Technology

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012