2/11/2022 | By John Levan

Seniors Guide looks at the benefits of play for seniors and suggests ideas connecting with others in playing games, from bingo to pickleball.

We usually think of playtime as being for young children and fondly recall games of our youth: hide and seek, ghost in the graveyard, marbles, jacks, hopscotch, Candyland, Trouble. At some point, kids outgrow these non-productive activities and move on to the more serious aspects of life. Right? Not so fast! It turns out that play is beneficial for people of all ages: from games of tag on the playground to bingo in a nursing home, games offer mental stimulation, social engagement, stress relief, and fun.

Some science behind the benefits of playing games

There is little doubt that games are beneficial for children, but it takes a neuroscientist to explain how and why. Dr. Sam Wass is a child psychologist who studies children’s brains as they play. He made the following discoveries:

Compared to adults, children’s brains are “messier,” meaning they have more links between different neurons. “(Playing) helps the process of sorting out this messy wiring diagram,” Wass explains. “You’re making connections between different parts of the brain which haven’t necessarily been connected before, and then you’re repeating it.”

But the benefits of play don’t subside as we grow to adulthood. Wass says the research suggests playing games can help preserve brain function: “People who played more games at age 70 had a less steep decline overall in their thinking skills.”

Senior Adults Playing Games Wavebreakmedia Ltd Dreamstime. Seniors Guide looks at the benefits of play for seniors and suggests ideas connecting with others in playing games, from bingo to pickleball.

What are other benefits of play for seniors?

A recent French study found that “stimulating leisure activities (board games) are considered as possible protective factors against dementia and cognitive decline in elderly people, particularly due to enhancement of cognitive reserve.”

Many seniors enjoy board games such as chess, backgammon, and Trivial Pursuit. Card games like rummy, pinochle, cribbage, bridge, and canasta can help improve memory and enhance brain function with a stimulating mix of numbers, letters, and colors.

Playing games with others provides social benefits, whether for cards, board games, or word games like Scrabble and Scattergories. Those who meet regularly experience fewer feelings of loneliness and isolation, not to mention the boost in brain power and confidence they get.

For those who have maintained their health and mobility, physical games and sports provide other benefits of play for seniors: can improve motor and visual skills and provide cardiovascular benefits. Shuffleboard, darts, miniature golf, corn hole, pickle ball, croquet, and bocce fall into this category.

The case for bingo

Cultural centers, associations, and assisted living facilities often organize game nights around bingo. There events are popular with many seniors, offering a game that’s simple and passive – yet exciting.

Dr. Carrie Ryan, who conducted research at a California nursing home, observed, “Playing bingo was the one time I would see a lot of people who were often hunched over in their wheelchairs enliven, straighten up their backs, laugh, experience smiles and joy in a way they just didn’t do at other times.”

While others see no value in bingo, with some even going as far as to call it a waste of time, Ryan sees it differently: “People with dementia can play and even win alongside residents without (it).” She emphasizes that “any form of play that evokes emotions like excitement, anticipation, and elation in brains that are struggling to make sense of the world is deserving of more respect.”

Like other games that provide greater intellectual challenge to the memory or strategizing skills, bingo helps bolster social connections while mitigating boredom and loneliness.

Where can older adults get involved in playing games?

  • Many senior centers offer games every day, including board games, cards, pool, scrabble, bridge, ping pong, and, of course, bingo.
  • Some municipal and county governments sponsor senior game events as well as leagues and tournaments in pickleball, bocce, corn hole, bowling, horseshoes, miniature golf, and other active games.
  • Older adults can find games at:
  • Games can connect us with friends, family, and neighbors: Get your grandkids away from their phones by challenging them to a video game you’ve been practicing. Or start your own daily Wordle share!

John Levan

Freelance writer John Levan focuses on insurance, finance, and manufacturing as well as senior living topics. Based in Pennsylvania, he earned his Bachelor of Arts in English from Alvernia University and Master of Arts in humanities from California State University, Dominguez Hills.