Barbara Police, 64, loved bowling since she was a kid. After she lost her sight 14 years ago, she was able to continue playing at a specially constructed bowling alley for people with visual impairments. But several years ago, a shoulder injury made it too painful for her to lift and throw a bowling ball. Now, thanks to the new Exergamers NYC program for seniors, Barbara is back in the game. Along with her partner of 38 years, Pat Sloane, she bowls every week at The SAGE Center in Chelsea.
Exergaming combines technology with exercise, allowing seniors to improve their physical, mental and social well-being by participating in friendly competition and interactive gaming. The project is made possible by a public-private partnership between Microsoft, NYC Department for the Aging (DFTA), and NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT). Exergaming has taken root in many of DFTA’s Innovative Senior Centers, which operates throughout all the boroughs of New York City.
A few months ago, the SAGE center was given Microsoft Kinect for Xbox, which relies on motion sensors—no heavy lifting involved. "Virtual bowling is terrific for me," Barbara explains, "because there's no weight! I just have to swing and hope for the best." As a person who is blind, she says virtual bowling opens up a new world to her. She's at less of a disadvantage with video games than physical games, since she's able to recreate the two-dimensional backdrop using her imagination—and the help of Pat, 70, who describes to her what's on the screen. It allows me think in my mind what it must look like," Barbara explains. "My mind is virtual!" She lights up when she talks about the game, and says she'd love to learn to play other kinds of games using the Xbox—like baseball.
Seniors in the program use Kinect for Xbox to make exercise fun and to supplement other fitness activities. They compete in virtual bowling tournaments with their counterparts at other senior centers around New York City and they also exergame to hip hop, disco, and salsa workout routines. The cross senior center bowling competition is a popular feature for Exergamers NYC and the friendly competition is paying big dividends for seniors New York.
Barbara and Pat are part of a growing group who meet every week for virtual bowling in SAGE center's vibrant common room, which is adorned with rainbow flags, posters and flyers for cultural events, like karaoke and poetry readings. The atmosphere is one of enthusiastic camaraderie. When Barbara steps up to take her turn, the other players offer her verbal direction and encouragement. She says the biggest challenge is not knowing where she's throwing, but the other players are supportive and patient, letting her know she's got the ball pointing in the right direction, and how many pins she has left. "I try to keep up with the people who can see," she says. She and Pat, who both used to work in publishing, were once awarded New York's "Couple of the Year" by the mayor's office. They met nearly four decades ago when they bumped trays during a work-related lunch and "we've been together ever since." They participate in activities at The SAGE center nearly every day, and say that weekly bowling has helped them to connect with other participants at the center. Though many have known each other for decades from their shared involvement in political movements, activities like virtual bowling offer a new opportunity to preserve and develop those friendships—in a light-hearted environment.
Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), the organization which runs the center, is the nation's largest organization for the older GLBT population. For more than three decades, they have provided everything from policy advocacy to cultural events and health and wellness resources to thousands of older adults across the country. The SAGE Center, which opened its doors in 2012, offers an array of activities and events—from salsa classes to political discussion to games. Participants often stay for meals and after-dinner socializing. For many of them, the center is a home base—an oasis of comfort, nurturing and support. Barbara says the center is her new family, since she has lost touch with her biological family, and the staff are "like brothers and sisters."
Sarah Savino, program manager at The SAGE Center, raves about the Kinect for Xbox as a crucial addition to the center's resources. She says virtual gaming offers a more flexible and accessible alternative to some of the other activities they offer—like acupuncture and yoga. A large number of SAGE participants are on the younger, baby boomer end of the spectrum (sixties and seventies) and many still work 9-to-5 jobs and have busy lives outside the center. So exergaming is an appealing activity for those who don't have the ability to commit to some of the other activities, ultimately helping to draw more participants to the center. For those who don't have time to be there regularly, it can help them to "feel a part of something" says Sarah. Just in the past eight months since Xbox became a regular activity at SAGE, it has helped participants form crucial bonds with each other. "The Xbox has grown friendships," says Sarah. "People that may not normally sit with each other at dinner now do, because they come to play this every week. So it's been great for us to have at our program."
Since the center draws such a diverse population, another benefit of Microsoft Xbox is that it offers an equal playing field to those with a range of age, experience and physical abilities. "The Xbox allows participants that have varying abilities in life—not necessarily in sports—to be a part of an activity people will cheer for you," says Sarah. "It's something you can just pick up and try." Of SAGE's core bowling group, the reigning champion is Rose Jordan, who is allegedly in her late eighties (though she won't reveal her exact age, because she "doesn't want to be pigeonholed" as an elderly person). The Brooklyn native is a fierce and tenacious bowler, who has loved the sport since childhood. Whatever her age, it hasn't put a damper on her "natural hook." The Xbox version is "great," she says, "You don't have to lift a heavy ball! And you can still get the same results, if you know how to play it." Decades of experience in bowling alleys has helped her hone her game and figure out the tips and tricks it takes to win—and virtual bowling is no different.
Rose is excited at the prospect of playing against other senior centers, because she enjoys the competitive nature of the game. "That's how we used to do it in the bowling alleys. You compete against different groups," she says, "It makes it more interesting." The Xbox and the Exergamers program could eventually become more than just a way for participants to bond locally—but a tool for connecting with other SAGE members across the country. Sarah would ideally like to expand Exergames NYC to the center's other two New York sites—one in Harlem, and one in Brooklyn—in hopes that the different sites will be able to play against each other. SAGE has also been communicating with Visions, a senior center that serves NYC seniors who are blind or low vision, about plans to organize virtual competitions between the two sites. Ultimately, Sarah hopes that the game will allow SAGE members to compete against each other on a national level. Many people from other parts of the country travel to New York to visit The SAGE Center—located in the heart of one of the most thriving neighborhoods in the world for the GLBT community. The Xbox could serve as a virtual window in to the center for those who don't have the resources or capabilities to travel. Sarah also notes that the senior participants at SAGE are more tech-savvy than at other senior centers where she's worked, and the center prides itself on state-of-the-art technologies. "Exergaming and Xbox lends itself to this community," she says. "It's new, innovative. And people like to be in the know. Hopefully it becomes the norm, because older adults deserve that."
Sarah says she enjoys seeing how Exergamers NYC has helped bring the participants together and made an impact on their lives—instilling confidence in people like Barbara, and bringing out a softer side in others—like Rose. "Rose has a tough exterior, but when she bowls, she smiles and appreciates the applause," says Sarah, "She's proud of herself." After seeing how the Exergamers NYC program has blossomed at SAGE, Sarah envisions it becoming something that could become a vital networking tool, connecting the GLBT community at large. "Hopefully it could also become an intergenerational activity," she says.