Competition is fierce, and the players are on fire. You can hear their shouting from a few doors down at Glendale Gardens Nursing and Rehab, where blue and red teams vie for the weekly “boccia” ball title.
About 24 Glendale residents sit in a circle in the community room, each wearing a colorful vest representing their team. They take turns rolling the balls into the center of the ring. The team whose ball gets closest to a central white ball, aka the pallino, achieves bragging rights until next Thursday when they rally again for the friendly competition.
Standing in the center of the action is Tim Trafford, Glendale Gardens’ activities director, who collects the supplies and assists residents as necessary.
“Bring it home, Jane,” he cheers on a nursing home resident rolling her ball into the center. When it taps the white ball, Team Red erupts.
Boccia has become a beloved pastime at Glendale Gardens the last few years – and Trafford along with retired developmental pediatrician Dr. Doug McNeal hope more nursing homes will adopt the game as a program to benefit residents’ emotional, mental and physical health.
Boccia is a version of the Italian yard-sport bocce, but designed for wheelchair athletes, according to USA Boccia Inc. Although not all of the Glendale Gardens’ players are wheelchair-bound, everyone is seated when competing. Boccia became a Paralympic Games sport in 1984, and it is played in 50 countries worldwide, governed by the Boccia International Sports Federation.
McNeal has used boccia medically before. Prior to his 1981 retirement from CoxHealth, he helped pediatric patients with developmental delays become involved with sports. Boccia, McNeal said, was one way his patients thrived. One young man, who used his chin to roll a boccia ball down a pipe, went on to compete in tournaments on four continents with the Paralympic Games.
“I got to see what an importance this sport has for people who have very little physical skills or ability,” McNeal said.
McNeal’s initial idea to bring boccia to assisted-living facilities occurred when he heard Trafford speaking at a conference. Afterward, McNeal approached the activities director and Glendale Gardens’ volunteer Colene Hank with his boccia ball idea.
“I thought there is no reason that it couldn’t work in a nursing home. And, from there, it took off,” Trafford said.
The equipment at Glendale Gardens, donated by McNeal, is designed for patients with cerebral palsy. However, after a resident’s son saw how the game was benefiting his mother, Trafford said the man purchased a full boccia set for the nursing home.
“He was so inspired. When he came to (the game), she was alert and vocal,” he says.
McNeal said purchasing boccia balls from a company like FlagHouse Inc. or Gopher Sport would cost about $125-$150 for 12 residents. Considering the equipment has a lifespan of about 10 years, Trafford said it’s a small investment for the benefits gained.
End goal: Engagement
Glendale Gardens’ teams slightly modified the game’s national rules to suit nursing home residents and the limited space available to hold competitions. Along the way, they’ve made other additions to customize the game for the players – like using a halved PVC pipe for some residents to roll the ball.
“Some don’t have motor skills or range of motion to launch the ball,” Trafford said. “The activity can appeal to residents with extremely low function and other residents on the other level of the spectrum that are high functioning.”
Melody Childers, Glendale Gardens’ activities assistant, is often in the middle of the action with Trafford. She said the game meets basic human needs.
“There’s a kid inside all of us. I don’t care how old you get,” she said, noting the oldest player is 98. “We like to play and have a good time with friends.”
James Wooten is one such child-at-heart who competes each week.
“Red team and Kansas City Chiefs,” he said with a smile. “I’ve been playing, I’d say, a year and a half. … I’m a regular on the team unless I have a bad week.”
Wooten said he’s seen many fellow residents who were not otherwise involved come alive with boccia.
“They’ve got to do it once. They’ve got to get in there and see what it’s about,” he said. “Once they’re in there, it releases their nervousness and some of the best players are the ones who, four months ago, I never thought would come back.”
The goal of the boccia program is engagement of physical, mental, emotional and social elements.
“Sometimes we get caught up in that … we see dementia and diabetes. Not a woman who ran a restaurant,” Trafford says. “These are people, not diagnoses.”
Glendale Gardens isn’t the only nursing home in the area to coordinate boccia ball games. McNeal said Brookhaven Nursing & Rehab and The Maples Heath and Rehabilitation LLC have participated in the game. Also, Integrity Home Health Care LLC staff has joined Glendale to try the game. Part of the goal is to eventually have tournaments between area homes.
“I do hope local facilities want to get together and play each other,” Trafford agreed, envisioning a traveling trophy for a three-month season. “It’s fine at this level, but I think we could even bring on an advanced level … I don’t want to hold onto this. I would love to see this become a staple of people’s activities program.”
And that healthy competition, the organizers say, is one of the top benefits of boccia. Team Red and Team Blue have their own chants. In the halls, teammates bond and engage in friendly banter with opposing team members.
“It’s like Crips and Bloods here,” McNeal said with a laugh.
Often, it’s challenging to get residents involved in activities, Trafford said, but that’s not the case with boccia.
“All you have to do is say the word ‘boccia’ and they are coming,” he said. “We’ve been doing this two or three years and it hasn’t worn off. There is just an appeal.”
But the involvement didn’t happen overnight, Childers said. She said nursing home staff invested time and energy.
“You have to make it fun at the beginning,” she said, noting she and Trafford help to keep the competition going. “Tim is blue team and I am red team.”
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