COLUMBIA — Jeanette Leroux slips a strap attached to a white remote around her wrist to prevent the remote from flying out of her hand. She grips the remote and positions herself in front of the big-screen TV.
The character on the screen resembles her, with short gray hair and eyeglasses.
As Leroux swings her arm back, her on-screen character does the same. She presses a button on the remote and then releases it on her forward swing. Leroux was in the 10th frame of her bowling game. She already bowled one strike and was getting ready to do it again.
“This is better than real bowling,” Leroux said after her ball knocked down another set of 10 pins, excited about setting a new personal record with a high score of 175.
A recreation room at Lenoir Woods, a continuing care retirement community in Columbia, functions as a virtual bowling alley once a week. Residents gather to play the game on Nintendo Wii, an interactive video game console that translates movement onto the screen through the use of a remote controller and sensor bar.
“They really enjoy it and have a really good time,” said Elliott Bentley, director of resident services for independent living at Lenoir Woods. “Without actually going to a bowling alley, it’s probably as close to that experience as we can get.”
The Wii even allows some residents to participate in sports that they may no longer be able to physically participate in at this stage of their lives.
“For a couple of people that come, it’s probably the most physical activity they do, aside from maybe walking,” Bentley said. “We have a couple of people who used to bowl and would probably still bowl if they didn’t have trouble lifting the ball and doing the motions. I think that’s why they’re drawn to Wii bowling.”
Other retirement communities in Columbia also have added Wii games into seniors’ activities. TigerPlace, The Terrace and Boone Landing all have the game system available to residents. Ron Worthley, the owner of Hillcrest Assisted Living, said he hopes to get a Wii for his facility as well.
Mark Bowers, director of recreation for independent living at Lenoir Woods, said he used to take residents on bowling trips but found that the Wii bowling game was a “really nice alternative for them,” especially for residents like Lavona Virgen.
“Lavona is actually a pretty amazing Wii bowler,” Bowers said. Virgen later won the competition, finishing first out of four bowlers.
Virgen and her husband, Hal Virgen, play Wii a couple times a month. She said they used to play in a couples bowling league, but that it’s been many years since then.
“I have rheumatoid arthritis, so I’m not able to lift a heavy bowling ball anymore,” Virgen said. “So it’s a fun thing that we can do together.”
And like many of the other residents at Lenoir Woods, Nintendo Wii bowling was Virgen’s first experience playing video games.
Bentley and Bowers said there was a lot of curiosity about the new video game system. So they slowly started introducing the Wii through the monthly newsletter and by bringing it out during social gatherings to allow groups of residents to try it.
“The biggest obstacle for us is the fact that it’s a video game, and to a lot of them it seems very foreign,” Bowers said. “But once they see what it’s really about — that it’s virtual and it’s relatively easy to learn, they become more interested.”
They even held “Wii School” to teach residents how to play.
“It was for anyone who wasn’t comfortable coming with a group of people at first,” Bowers said, “so they could have a little one-on-one with Elliott or I to become more familiar with the system and how it works.”
Bentley said the senior living community has five Wiis spread throughout the independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing sectors. Residents have the option of playing three days a week: one day for bowling, one for golf and another for the new Wii Fit.
The Wii comes packaged with the Wii Sports disc, which includes bowling, golf, boxing, baseball and tennis, though independent and assisted living residents have taken to only the first two for now.
“Bowling is the easiest one to do and the easiest one to teach,” Bowers said. “We’ve had some residents who have come to play Wii and have really enjoyed it, and now they have one in their own homes.”
Mark Brumbach, 72, said he originally purchased a Wii to have available for his three grandchildren. When they come to visit from St. Louis, he and his wife, Pat Brumbach, will sometimes play with them. Brumbach said they play the bowling game primarily, but will also play baseball, tennis and golf.
“My wife and I are blessed that we are still mobile where we can get out and do other things,” Brumbach said. “But as you get older, these type of things become more attractive.”
Now with the addition of Wii Fit, which Lenoir Woods bought the day it was released, seniors have even more ways to exercise. The Wii Fit offers strength training, aerobics, yoga and balance games, such as heading soccer balls or skiing down a mountain while standing on the Wii Balance Board platform.
“A lot of them like it because it’s like they have a personal trainer,” Bowers said. “Either Elliott or I are with them the whole time. It’s pretty great because it offers different strengthening and balancing options.”
While Wii Fit is becoming increasingly more popular among residents, bowling still claims the top spot. Bentley said virtual bowling tournaments might take place in the near future because another Lutheran Senior Services senior living community, Heisinger Bluffs in Jefferson City, also has a Wii.
“We would like to get a consistent group of people who show up and form a bowling team,” he said. “Our goal is eventually to be able to get online and play our sister community.”