Every Friday night for the last five months Tina and Don Fields, ages 77 and 79, and Dixie and Peter Neilson, ages 69 and 72, have gathered at the Senior Recreational Center for a round of bocce ball.
Bocce, which is a cross between bowling and croquet, has become a ritual for the two couples, providing a way to promote their good health—physically, mentally and emotionally.
“We had been looking for something to do together that involved being outdoors and getting a little exercise,” Dixie Neilson said. “Bocce ball seemed like a good fit.”
Dixie and Peter started playing first when Peter asked her for a set of bocce balls for Christmas last year.
The two couples say playing bocce ball is fun. They laugh, they joke and they even have gotten into the spirit of things by wearing team colors as they hit the court—this time blue for the Neilsons and pink for the Fields.
“We had played it in Europe in the ‘90s, and when we found out Dixie and Peter were playing, we immediately wanted to join them,” Tina Fields said. “Donald and I went and ordered our set. We have played religiously every week since.”
The foursome’s weekly routine illustrates a larger trend toward more active aging among senior adults. Active aging not only makes life more enjoyable, but it improves health outcomes, too: As people live longer, nearly all physicians, scientists and other medical professionals encourage activity to promote longer vibrant living.
At Gainesville’s Senior Recreation Center, there’s a lot more than just bocce ball to encourage activity. Other outdoor areas include tennis, racquetball and pickleball courts. There is even a ping pong table set up outdoors near tables where once can sit and have a picnic meal.
Gainesville and Alachua County are part of the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities, a project that has been ongoing in the United States since 2012.
Age-friendly awareness began under the umbrella of the World Health Organization, but it is a critical area to watch as the U.S. population ages. By 2030, one of every five people in the United States is expected to be 65 or older. By 2035, the number of adults older than 65 will be greater than the number of children under 18.
In Florida, Sarasota was the first to join the network in 2015; Alachua County joined in 2019. The program started with 10 communities and has quickly grown to more than 700 in California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Laura Cantwell, Florida AARP associate state director of advocacy, said becoming age friendly is a five-year process that starts with a commitment from a community’s highest elected official: “The first part of the work begins with survey listening to the community to hear what is working and where we can make improvements.”
She said now there are projects and plans that we are working on projects to connect older adults and people of all ages. Park improvements are a top area of focus, with exercise equipment being placed in many parks, Cantrell said.
“One community added musical equipment into their city parks so people could go and play music,“ she said. “What we are really seeing is that people are enjoying (themselves) when they can get outside. In Florida everyone likes to be outside and enjoy the parks and also find a way to connect with other people.”
Kourtney Oliver heads up community programs within the Alachua County Health Department and is one of the leaders for the Alachua County Healthy Communities Initiative. Her role is to integrate efforts by many non-profits on behalf of the Community Health Improvement Plan, or CHIP, especially age-friendly activities.
The group of about a half dozen organizations, including many branches of the Health Department, meets regularly to coordinate their actions on behalf of everyone’s health, including those activities that are age friendly.
Wendy P. Bonilla is the healthy aging program coordinator for Elder Options, which offers four classes, fall prevention, tai chi for arthritis in two parts, and one on diabetes in 16 counties in North Central Florida. Most recently she taught a tai chi class at the High Springs Women’s Club—and she describes it lovingly.
“These are slow, gradual movements that help build that muscle, and we work on that muscle memory and it’s beautiful, absolutely beautiful,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realize how this helps them prevent falls, but we do a lot of little lunges, a lot of balancing, and shifting of the weight. As we shift that weight it helps us build that muscle and strengthen that muscle so if we do take a fall and start to trip, muscle memory kicks in.”
Connie Casey is one of the women who took Bonilla’s High Springs class.
“We had these challenging moves,” she said. “We did find out there was a benefit to what we are doing and that it was giving us a better sense of balance since a lot of us at our age are concerned about falling.”
Because Gainesville is home to a top-5 public university, it’s not surprising to learn that studies are ongoing at the University of Florida to see what it takes for people to live longer and better. Dr. Stephen Anton, chief of the Division of Clinical Research at the UF Institute on Aging, has been studying a group of about 200 individuals over age 85 who he considers examples of healthy aging.
“The determinant was a general consensus of key factors based on expert opinions that represent successful aging,” Anton said. “We are looking at the ability to live independently, perform activities of daily living and know about acute life-threatening disease. The goal is to take phenotype that would represent successful aging and then use electronic health records that would match or qualify to be considered successful aging.”
Anton and his team are planning to launch another study soon of Floridians over age 90 “and follow for up to five years and evaluate biological and psychological factors that influence their health and longevity.”
Another ongoing study at UF is exploring whether computerized brain training can reduce the risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia. The study “Preventing Alzheimer with Cognitive Training” (PACT) is led by the University of South Florida with participation by UF and other universities.
Adam J. Woods, assistant director of the Center for Cognitive Aging and Memory is a principal investigator for the UF study site. He said the aim of the three-year study is to look for ways to change how we age. Nationwide, he said the trial is recruiting 7,600 older adults—the largest in history—looking for definitive evidence about the benefits of brain games.
“Up until now there’s been data suggesting that brain games help, but with this study we will have clear evidence,” he said. “If this study works, we will have found something that is easily accessible that people can do in their own home and reduce the likelihood of developing dementia in life.
Woods said the study has enormous potential because “these are things we can easily deploy in anyone’s home who has a computer, a smart phone, a tablet… and potentially have an impact.”
Keeping older minds active is an essential component of Oak Hammock’s renowned Institute for Learning in Retirement (ILR).
Sara Lynn Gibbs, a prior ILR coordinator who was with Oak Hammock before it even opened its doors, said the ILR was the idea of former UF President John Lombardi, who wanted a “top notch retirement community connected to UF.” The goal was a lifelong learning program.
The ILR has study sessions and lectures year-round and is open to all members of the community over age 55 (for a small fee), as well as all Oak Hammock residents. There are lectures on political, international, and economic topics as well as studies of operas, other music and languages.
“Many studies have been done about how important it is to keep the mind active,” Gibbs said. “For at least 30 percent of the people who came to live at Oak Hammock, that was a big part of their decision in coming to live here.”
Back on the bocce ball court, the Neilsons and the Fields have nothing but raves for their new sport and how it is improving all aspects of their lives. The games have deepened their friendship. By spending more time outdoors in even moderate physical activity, they are healthier. By joking and laughing, they are happier. And they are eating better too.
“We know that as we age it is important to stay active, try new things and to create opportunities for stronger social ties,” Dixie Neilson said. “For us, bocce has been the answer. This simple game has become the highlight of our week.”
Editor’s note: This is the second story in a new series called Aging Matters. It was independently reported by Ronnie Lovler and underwritten by Elder Options. Some reporting was made possible by Lovler’s acceptance as a fellow into the 2022 Age Boom Academy, a program of the Columbia Journalism School, the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center, and the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.