By Amy Wenk
Three elderly men waited calmly on the striped sofas and chairs in the activity room of Atria Buckhead, the senior community where they live on Lenox Road.
Their bowling league, the Buckhead Kingpins, was about to compete for a spot in the playoffs. But they didn’t need an alley, bowling balls or pins. They required only a television, Nintendo Wii gaming system and their fourth teammate, Al Medore, who was late again and probably still fixing his hair, they said.
Petite but lively Jerry Fulton joined the scene wearing plaid pants, a string of plastic Marti Gras beads around her neck and a red daisy pinned to her lapel. Ready with gags for April Fools, she started teasing 79-year-old John Davis that his hair was turning pink. Chuckles ensued.
Before long Medore appeared with his hair slicked, and the four senior men and Fulton, their 80-something-year-old cheerleader, began their final game of the Buckhead-based National Senior League (NSL).
The four-member Atria team is one of 144 Nintendo Wii bowling leagues to participate in the senior league, an Internet-based, conference-style tournament for virtual bowlers at senior centers and assisted living facilities.
Wii is a video game with wireless controllers that respond to a player’s movements. Wii bowlers swing their arms to send a virtual ball down the virtual alley.
“It’s so simple to do,” said Buckhead resident Dennis Berkholtz, who was inspired to launch NSL last July after he was uninspired by the activities available at the Cape Coral, Fla. senior facility where his parents once resided.
“I was always amazed at the lack of creativity in providing residents fun things to do,” said the former Olympian, who played handball in the 1972 Munich games. “It used to always be bingo and square dancing.”
Berkholtz said Wii bowling can be played by peopled aged 3 to 100. Berkholtz wants to offer more Wii bowling leagues that would take in all age groups. Plans are to launch an Atlanta bar league and a collegiate league.
“There are 67.5 million Wii bowling alleys out there,” said Berkholtz, quoting a statistic from Nintendo. “We are trying to create Wii leagues for everyone. We believe Wii bowling is something everyone can do.”
Just nine months old, the NSL now is finishing up its second tournament.
The Atria Buckhead league’s 3-5 record did not get them into the playoffs, but they have no plans of giving up on the activity.
“I love the competition,” said Medore, an 81-year-old New Jersey native whose daughter lives in Buckhead. The former truck driver has for about 15 years belonged to a traditional bowling league as well.
His teammate Davis joined the team to improve his Wii skills. He wants to give his five grandchildren some competition the next time they visit, he said.
The appeal of Nintendo Wii is catching on at other senior facilities around the areas of Sandy Springs, Buckhead and Brookhaven.
“It gives senior residents something new and exciting to do,” Berkholtz said.
The Dorothy C. Benson Senior Multipurpose Complex in Sandy Springs has a Wii game system for its elderly visitors.
“We have some people that come in and play independently,” said Pat King, activities director for the county-run senior facility. “It’s just a few people that play.”
PARC at Buckhead, a retirement community on Phipps Boulevard, also offers Wii gaming to its residents. Although the Buckhead facility does not have a NSL league, two of PARC’s four Atlanta locations do and those leagues have made it to the NSL playoffs, said Becci Johnson who works with the teams.
No league in Buckhead only means more time for residents Jean Kaufman and Helen Miller to improve their Wii bowling skills. The two women played the game at about 4 p.m. on April 6 in PARC at Buckhead’s sunlit gym.
“I feel like I am really bowling,” said Kaufman, a New York native that enjoys virtual bowling once a week with Miller. “She’s my partner in crime.”
The two petite, golden-haired ladies met just three months ago when Kaufman relocated from Florida to PARC at Buckhead.
But when they play Wii bowling, they act like old friends. They laugh and tease each other during the game, which entices spectators.
“The people enjoy it,” Berkholtz said. “It’s not just about the bowlers. It’s about the excitement the community generates around them.”
He said Wii bowling leagues help recreate for seniors the energy of high school sporting events.
“The cheerleaders are just as important as the bowlers,” Berkholtz said. “They enjoy the atmosphere.”
That seemed the case for Fulton, the Atria Buckhead league’s biggest fan. Although she doesn’t bowl, hanging out with the team is an opportunity to be her energetic, playful self.
“I knew they were winners from the beginning,” said the former English teacher who has five daughters, 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
During the April 1 games, Fulton was full of encouraging words, especially for Davis, who seemed frustrated with his performance.
“John, do it. John,” Fulton said as Davis drew back the Wii console.
When Davis hit eight pins from his sofa seat, Fulton exclaimed, “You did it John! You get better every time we bowl.”