Games and other forms of play might help reverse the loneliness felt by older adults. And even without that goal, they provide a bridge across generations that brings fun to young, old and in between in ways that promote well-being.
“The power of play is not just nice to have. I’ve never talked to an older adult who wants less play, less fun in their lives. But few focus on the joyful, playful side of aging,” said Ted Fischer, co-founder and CEO of Ageless Innovation.
That’s the theory behind an initiative called Reach Out and Play, a joint effort of a company called Ageless Innovation and AARP. Anyone can get involved and benefit, either by attending organized events, setting up their own or even simply taking the time to engage younger and older folks together in play within your own realm, from family to neighborhood to local churches and organizations.
Studies and surveys suggest a large portion of older adults are not having much fun.
The number of older adults who describe themselves as lonely is “drastically rising,” with one-third of adults 50 and older saying that they often or always feel lonely or isolated. And the numbers are highest at the younger end of that more mature spectrum, with 38% agreeing starting around age 50 compared to 26% among those 65 and older.
That’s according to a nationally representative survey by AARP that suggests board games and other forms of play could be an antidote to what U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has described as an “epidemic of loneliness.”
Reach Out and Play, which has AARP as the major sponsor, has a goal of offering engaging and playful activities that will interest older adults and gather in others across the age spectrum. Dozens and dozens of activities like game nights have been slated throughout the month of September, but the hope is others will grab the idea and sponsor future events, as well, Heather Nawrocki, vice president of fun and fulfillment at AARP, told the Deseret News.
Fischer said dozens of game events have been planned by different age-focused organizations, among others. Youth groups are going into long-term care communities and hosting game events. He said would love to see it become a habit because multigenerational interaction is “magical.”
While the campaign’s goal is to get area groups and service providers to launch events, Fischer said there shouldn’t be a time clock on it. Getting people in the habit of playing together across generations is important.
He knows that from experience. He recounted taking his kids along to visit his grandmother, first in assisted living and then over the years in dementia care. And conversations at that point were becoming awkward, but once the Jenga game came out, everyone started having fun, he said.
Forging strong bonds
AARP reported that “playful activities such as board gaming, can be helpful in creating meaningful connections with others.” In its survey, 60% of adults 50 and older said playing board games helps them to connect with others — true especially among women (70%) compared to men (60%).
Nawrocki thinks the gap in happiness among the younger older adults and why they feel more lonely could be that they are the sandwich generation, with children and also caregiving responsibilities. It’s also a time of life transitions — one may be leaving the workplace and their social connections might change, for instance.
Things might get easier at an older age; research suggests that people feel more comfortable in their skin as they get older, so any unhappiness decreases.
Nawrocki suggests that older adults — and especially women — may be less sure about how to make friends. The friendships they had when they were younger might have relocated or changed. Their network, once really dependent on their children, no longer is. And if they leave work, those friendships change, too.
Nearly half of the older adults who were surveyed said they’d like to play board games more often, a finding especially true among those who describe themselves as often lonely or isolated (52%) versus those who say they are not (42%). And 87% believe having fun and participating in playful activities is good for health.
The survey included 1,237 adults age 50 and older in June 2023.
“AARP is very much aware of isolation among those older than 55,” said Nawrocki. She noted that her organization has created activities to engage people around history, travel, games, technology webinars, movies, concerts and more.
There are also opportunities for online interaction by way of chat or even live in AARP’s virtual community center, aarp.org/vcc.
A hedge against sorrow
The other advantage to playing together is how naturally memories come up. People tell stories about their lives to each other. Older adults share positive past memories. Conversation sparkles. And laughter — that’s a real benefit of play, Fischer said.
Ageless Innovation has an interesting history that’s quite relevant to its effort to engage people of all generations in playing together. According to Fischer — and to the history posted on its website — Hasbro formed a team in 2015 and tasked it with creating engaging, joy-bringing products like games that could impact health and wellness.
The group, which included Fischer, marketed innovations under Hasbro’s Joy for All brand — and started with All Companion Pets, which were robotic cats and dogs that didn’t need to be fed or walked, but that interacted with older people in ways that provided some companionship.
In 2019, with Hasbro’s blessing, the Joy for All leadership team did a “friendly spin-out acquisition” of the Joy for All brand and became Ageless Innovation, with a focus on creating products to bring comfort, play and happiness to older adults, and thus to all the other generations that care about them.
It has since partnered with Hasbro to “reimagine” the company’s classic board games, making them generations friendly. The results are Game of Life Generations (designed for multigeneration play), Scrabble Bingo and Trivial Pursuit Generations.
In that one, for instance, Fischer said there are questions that target the different generations in a category, so a Gen Z can answer a question relevant to them, while a baby boomer could choose its generation. Or they could agree to play a specific generation.
Each of those popular, classic games has been redesigned to feature visual touches like larger typefaces that are easier for older eyes to read and that meet the needs and interests of the older adults, while encouraging intergenerational play within families. Fischer’s team also created card games that work especially well across generations, including Past and Present (a matching game where you might turn over a rotary phone and a cellphone as a pair) and Lifetime Lineup, which is a timeline game that also encourages people to tell stories.
Aarp.org/agelessplay has some Reach Out and Play activities listed, but notes that if there isn’t one available nearby, “we invite everyone to join the fun anyway. From senior centers and nursing homes to family living rooms and kitchen tables, anyone can host a Reach Out and Play Board Game Event,” per a news release.
While the formal campaign is slated to last through the end of the year, AARP is interested in keeping it going beyond that, Nawrocki said. She and Fischer hope that family and group gameplay will become a habit.