Bowling pins falling down from a strike in ten-pin bowling.

A digital bowling game where participants mimic the motions of the popular sport is proving to be beneficial for people with dementia and physical impairments who attend adult day programs, according to new research supported by AGE-WELL, Canada’s Technology and Aging Network.

The motion-based technology can “provide meaningful engagement” for a wide range of participants in such programs where staff have the right training to support them, says Dr. Arlene Astell, who holds a Research Chair in Dementia and Wellbeing at the University of Toronto and the Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences in Whitby, Ont.

Bowling has universal appeal—and now a digital version has been shown to provide “meaningful engagement” for people with dementia and physical impairments.

Bowling has universal appeal—and now a digital version has been shown to provide “meaningful engagement” for people with dementia and physical impairments.

Dr. Astell and co-investigator Erica Dove developed a group-based 20-week digital bowling program and tested it at four day centres in Durham Region attended by seniors with differing cognitive and physical abilities. Their study showed that playing the game has a range of benefits. Participants learn a new skill, feel a sense of accomplishment and achievement, get some physical exercise and participate in it together.

“Engaging activities are important to quality of life, but people with dementia and older adults with physical impairment have reduced opportunities,” says Dr. Astell. “So it’s exciting to learn that motion-based technologies can work for them, where staff are trained to provide support.”

In the game, which is available commercially on the Xbox Kinect system, a player’s movements produce actions on a screen. The fact that bowling is familiar to most and the motions are natural, such as raising an arm, makes the technology accessible to a wide population, Dr. Astell explains.

“Bowling ticks a lot of boxes,” she says. “The fact that it’s fun is also important.”

Shirley Wheaton, 73, who has mobility and hearing challenges and attends a program daily at the Oshawa Senior Citizens Centre in Oshawa, easily plays the game from a wheelchair. “It doesn’t matter what disability you have, you can still do it,” says Wheaton, noting that electronic games “are not just for younger generations,” and she’s getting better at it. “You always want to improve your game…I like it best if I get a strike.”

Dr. Astell says it helps that the Xbox/Kinect system is available off the shelf and players use direct gestures to control the action. In other games like the Nintendo Wii there are devices with buttons to push, which can be tricky for those with limited dexterity and cognition. It also doesn’t have complex “levels” and comes with the same challenges and rewards of conventional bowling.

“It’s a natural group activity, with camaraderie, competition and cheering. That’s ideal,” says Dr. Astell, who is looking into other games that might be suitable for seniors.

The team’s research shows that caregivers in day programs should receive training to help make participants feel confident in playing the bowling game. They have produced a manual for care providers and welcome queries from seniors’ programs wanting help in acquiring and using the bowling game. Indeed, Dr. Astell has already been contacted by several. Meanwhile the centres where the bowling program was tested have opted to keep it in place, and the number of participants has grown, she says.

Additional implications of the technology for older adults continue to be studied. For example, Dove, an AGE-WELL trainee and University of Toronto master’s student, is looking at the potential positive effect of the stance and motions used in the bowling game on the balance, gait and stability of participants who stand to use the system.

The results of the team’s bowling study were presented in 2018 at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference and the Alzheimer’s Disease International Conference. The study has also received funding from the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration and Aging, the Ontario Shores Foundation and the Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences Research Chair in Dementia and Wellbeing at the University of Toronto.

Originally published by AGE-WELL.