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What's Wrong With Bingo?

To engage older adults, there's so much more to offer

What's wrong with Bingo?

Steven Puetzer/Getty Images

Why B-I-N-G-O spells fun for older communities.

We were told they'd come for hot dogs, but they came ready to play.

It was a sunny morning in Pittsburgh, and I was with a group of volunteers setting up activity stations in the community room of a senior high-rise apartment building. We arranged an area for potting flowers, a corner for playing cornhole and a row of tables for serving lunch.

"Most residents will probably come down for the food," the building's manager told us.

But starting at 10 a.m., long before we fired up the grill, a steady flow of people walked through the door. There was Carl with his Korea and Vietnam veteran cap, and Marie with the kindest smile I'd seen all week. More than 40 residents from the 211-unit building joined us, quite a turnout considering our recruitment strategies — a few fliers in the hallways and Motown on the speakers.

The biggest hit of the day, as it turned out, was bingo. About an hour in, we started a game, and so many people wanted to play that we turned off the music and handed the microphone over to our caller.

"B12… N32… G57…"

Residents scanned their cards, whispering to each other as they placed chips over the numbers. When someone finally yelled "Bingo!" the group paused as we confirmed the numbers, then clapped for the winner.

As a volunteer, I cheered along. People were having a ball. What more could we ask for?

As a gerontologist, though, I winced inside. I was trained to think of bingo as a dirty word, an activity meant to pass the time and nothing else. We could ask for more, I thought. We could offer more.

Among progressive thinkers in the field, there is a push toward creative programs that engage the imagination, invite people to connect with others and acknowledge the fact that our older generations have a lot to contribute.

The Self Stories writing workshops I used to lead, for instance, challenged participants to reflect on a moment from the past, whether it was 60 years ago or six days ago. The group would convene each week to share their written work, fostering meaningful dialogue and a sense of community.

Another example: As part of the city's age-friendly initiative, Lively Pittsburgh organizes neighborhood Aging Your Way workshops for older community members to develop projects that will improve their lives in the years ahead. At each gathering, a theater company leads a 30-minute improvisational dance session. Coming up with moves on the fly can be uncomfortable, but it sure does reenergize the room. Plus, that discomfort makes space for originality, assuring everyone that it's OK to say or try something new.

There's nothing wrong with bingo. In fact, as I was reminded, there's a lot that's right about it. It's fun (addictively so!) and attracts a crowd. That said, bingo shouldn't be our default. We should aim for variety and add nontraditional programs to the mix, tapping into the rich lives and intrinsic creativity of our neighbors like Carl and Marie.

Laura Hahn is a gerontologist committed to intergenerational solidarity and age-friendly communities.