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Play time for adults heals mind, body and soul

Jeff Schnaufer
CTW Features

The Fortune 500 CEO was going through a grim time. His wife was slowly dying. The emotional toll of her illness pressed in upon him, threatening to drag him under. Then, one day, he found a way to ease his mind.

“He went out and flew a model airplane,” recalls Dr. Stuart Brown. “He was able to deal better with the situation. Then he went out and did some painting. It gave him hope for his own life and the future.”

Brown, who founded the nonprofit National Institute for Play in Carmel Valley, Calif., has collected many examples of how play transforms people’s lives. He believes the prevalence of depression, stress-related diseases, interpersonal violence, addictions, and other health and wellness problems can be linked to the prolonged deprivation of play.

“Play is terribly important through the whole life cycle, particularly in childhood and senior adulthood,” Brown says. “Play is a survival drive of the human species. The side effect of a playful life is the ability to roll with the punches and soldier on.”

“We all need to blow off steam. To be deprived of play is to become edgy and jittery,” says Dr. Scott G. Eberle of the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y. and editor of The American Journal of Play. “But when the picture is clinical, and isolation adds to the trouble, play can be a remedy. For example, nursing homes have introduced video games for clients whose mobility is limited and whose only stimulation, such as it is, may come in the form of watching television.”

What form of play is right for you? That depends on your temperament and physical health, Brown says. Brown, Eberle and several other experts suggest some playful activities for the 50-plus generation.

BODY PLAY

Find a physical activity that you enjoy, such as hiking, biking, spinning, dancing, or even wall climbing, Brown says. Choosing any hard physical activity that will gradually require 80 percent of maximum cardiac output has favorable effects on the hippocampus of the brain, where memory is stored.

“If you get in good enough shape to sustain that for 30 to 40 minutes, you are going to have immediate and permanent new connections in your brain,” Brown says.

Physically challenging video game systems like the Nintendo Wii are a playful way to exercise. Brown, who is 77, plays tennis on the courts and on the Wii with his son, while Eberle touts the benefits of the Wii and karaoke machines.

“If you’re the sedentary type, and if the game gets you playing instead of watching, that’s good, Eberle says. “If the game gets you up and moving while you’re playing, that’s great. And if it gets you up and moving and singing among friends like a karaoke evening would, that’s splendid.”

Another enjoyable way to play is dancing, says Kristin Brown, lifestyles coordinator at Sun City Texas, an active adult community in Georgetown, Texas.

“Line dancing works the lower body, requires memory and can be done anywhere,” Brown says. “It’s beneficial for those who don’t think they can dance, or for those that no longer have partners.”

Patricia Nash, activity coordinator at ONEgeneration Adult Day Care in Encino, Calif., offers creative, playful exercises for seniors with limited physical ability, such as baseball played with a plastic bat and a beach ball.

“We play volleyball with a balloon instead of a ball because their response time is a little bit slower,” Nash says. “It’s good for the attention span, their reflexes and upper body exercise. And they love it.”

PLAY TOGETHER

“As you get older, I think you get more isolated and you cease to venture out because your friends have gotten married or passed on and the problem is loneliness and not being connected to society,” says Linda Carreon, 64, of Sherman Oaks, Calif.

To combat this, Carreon founded the social group Singles Over 50 Just Want To Have Fun, which has grown to 169 members in just a year and features a variety of playful activities, from hiking to walking to museum visits.

Carreon ensures that all her activities are playful. She provides opportunities to explore new experiences in the city, like a child explores a playground.

“I would call exploring and doing new things a form of play,” Carreon says.

If joining a social group is too intimidating, consider inviting a few friends or family over for a game night of bridge or poker. You might even want to host a casino night, like Nash does at ONEgeneration, complete with non-alcoholic beer.

“It’s a great form of socialization,” Nash says. “It builds cognitive skills, too.”

PLAY BACK

Finally, think of the activities you enjoyed as a child. For those who loved getting dirty as a kid, the garden may be the place to play. If you loved singing, join a choir. If you loved animals, adopt a playful pet.

“Even if they have lost playfulness in themselves, most people can recall moments that they had a joyful experience that was playful,” Brown says. “Hook into the state of play that you once knew was a part of your life.”