As the errant bowling ball headed for the gutter, Richard Fernandez winced and covered his eyes. But his disappointment was fleeting and soon he was back on his game, his spirit and score soaring as his wheelchair-using "audience" cheered him on. You might call it Wii-chair bowling. Residents and rehabbers at the Countryside Rehab and Healthcare Center, who "bowl" every Wednesday — or whenever a group of them gathers together — call it fun. "We have a great time," Fernandez, 57, said. "It's just like bowling in a real bowling alley, but a lot of us can't stand, so it's perfect." While nursing-home residents and rehabilitation patients of yesteryear often filled their days will puzzles and television reruns, today's silver-haired "gamers" are bowling, playing soccer, skiing down snowy slopes, or working on their yoga postures in a virtual world.
For the uninitiated, Wii gamers hold a wireless remote that senses motion and projects the players' movements onto the television screen. Realistic sounds enhance the animated experience.
"Oh my gosh, it's so much fun," said Donald Atkinson, who at 87 was proving it's never too late to enjoy a good game of Wii.
Atkinson had a bit of trouble getting the hang of it at first, but with some help from Barbara Randolfi, activity assistant at the Countryside center, and visitor Thomas Horn, 15, he was soon blasting pins just like the rest of them.
Horn was visiting his grandmother, who lives at the skilled nursing facility at 3825 Countryside Blvd.
"I like helping them," he said. "You don't want them to sit around all day. You want them to have fun."
Randolfi said the center obtained the Wii games and console before Christmas.
"They go crazy over Wii," said Randolfi. "They are so competitive, it's amazing."
After noting how popular the Wii sports games were, the center began using Wii Fit to supplement physical and occupational therapy. The game incorporates a balance board for yoga, strength, aerobics and balance training.
Soon, the center will open a separate "Wii-Hab" room, said Lisa Norris, director of therapy at the Countryside facility.
"It's great for stroke victims, cardiac patients and those with balance issues," she said.
Although they haven't had the game long enough to measure results, Norris said it offered a pleasant change of pace from the boredom of traditional therapies.
"Patients like it because it's something fun and different. They seem to really respond to it."
Nancy Allen, an occupational therapy assistant at the facility, said the beauty of Wii is that it gives instant feedback to a patient.
"It's one thing for us to tell them how they are doing, but it's another for them to see it for themselves," she said.
The Wii craze is spreading among nursing homes, retirement centers and veterans' rehabilitation facilities across the nation confirmed Katie Kissal, spokeswoman for the American Physical Therapy Association.
"We've seen a growing trend over the past year or so," she said.
According to an article in the May 2008 issue of the organization's PT Magazine (apta.org ), "Physical therapists across the nation are introducing the Wii to patients — and seeing dramatic increases in treatment program compliance, some encouraging outcomes, and a generally more upbeat mood in the clinic."
At Countryside Rehab, resident Janice Solis, one of the hardcore bowlers, is hoping to help form a Wii bowling team.
"When we get really good," she said, "they said we could go into competition with other facilities."
Reach Terri Bryce Reeves at firstname.lastname@example.org.