It’s all fun and games for seniors who stay active

MIDDLEBURY — On a recent Tuesday morning at Project Independence, the Blueberries tennis team relied on winners from all seven members, including overheads and drop shots from Mary Wedge, Margaret Hutchins and Tillie Brown, to defeat Ken Schoen, 7-0, 4-7, 7-3.
The match was held in the ground-floor dining room at Elderly Services Inc. in Middlebury.
The laughter-filled competition, applauded by a peanut gallery of several other Project Independence attendees, was scored by another program attendee, Edna Randall. She drew pictures of a sad-faced Schoen when he dropped a set and also waved an American flag while all sang the national anthem before the racquet-swinging began.
Volunteers Devon Kearns, Logan Pierson-Flagg and Rick Beers helped Schoen, a Project Independence assistant activities coordinator, stage the friendly match, one of many since Schoen introduced the sport about two-and-a-half years ago to program attendees in the Elderly Services building off Exchange Street.
It was not a U.S. Tennis Association-certified match by any means.
The volunteers volleyed foam balls back to Schoen if he managed to knock them past the seated seniors who faced him across the net. Points were only scored if the seniors hit an unreturnable shot into the court marked on Schoen’s side of the net, or if they hit a ball that landed out.
The final tally, of course, was really beside the point. Wedge, a 75-year-old Shoreham resident, said she plays because it’s fun, she likes Schoen, and it’s a sport she enjoys.
“It’s the camaraderie of all the players together, and especially Ken,” said Wedge, who attends Project Independence daily. “I just adore him. And I would miss it if I didn’t play tennis. When I was a kid I used to play tennis.”
Brown, a 79-year-old Brandon resident who hops on a bus every day to come to Project Independence, is another of the many attendees who enjoys tennis and the dozens of other sports and activities that Schoen and fellow assistant activities director Jack Desbois offer.
“We’ve all just realized we can’t just sit around. We need the exercise,” Brown said.
Desbois, a relatively recent Middlebury College graduate and a talented singer, said it is critical for Project Independence to offer a wide range of choices in morning and afternoon time slots — as many as 75 a day and about 150 senior attendees a week choose between three options at any given time.
“We see people with a wide variety of interests and different abilities, cognitively and physically, and with all different kinds of backgrounds, so we always have at least three different activities going on at a time so that folks can choose,” Desbois said. “Do they want to do something music-related? Do they want to do something sports-related? Do they want to do something literary, or arts and crafts?”
   MIDDLEBURY UNION HIGH School boys’ tennis team members offer a demonstration in a mini-Wimbledon match at Elderly Services Inc. earlier this summer. ESI keeps elders moving with modified versions of tennis, indoor and outdoor golf, whiffle ball, four variations of shuffleboard, volleyball, a long list of tabletop games.
Photo courtesy Elderly Services Inc.
Project Independence officials agree that sports provide a vital option. The roughly two-dozen choices Schoen and Desbois have created include several varieties of indoor and outdoor golf, whiffle ball, four variations of shuffleboard, volleyball, a long list of tabletop games that are played on a donated pool table, four bocce variations, horseshoes, broom soccer, ladder ball, target toss, basketball bonanza, air hockey and barrel Frisbee.
“Sports is a really central part,” Desbois said. “We always have one of those activities be a sports activity, both because a lot of folks enjoy the sports, and because it’s important for folks to stay active. It’s good for their physical, emotional and mental health.”
Joanne Corbett, Elderly Services’ executive director, said the activities directors have created rules for the games that honor their spirit and remain safe and fun for seniors. Many people are surprised to learn Project Independence attendees are playing active sports.
“When people think Elderly Services and Project Independence they think frail elders and people from 80 to 100,” Corbett said. “And the public and the families are a little taken aback at first when we say, well, we play golf. We play whiffle ball. We play tennis. We have volleyball. And they think that’s not possible. So we have a very big commitment to taking any game in the world and turning it into a geriatric version.”
Corbett also spoke of the place of sports activities play within Project Independence’s larger mission, which she said does include providing good meals and making sure pills are taken, but also much more.  
“Our mission very much focuses on having elderly people continuing to enjoy life despite all the challenges of using a walker, eyesight failing, some using a wheelchair. Part of our mission and value system is to say, ‘You don’t have to be depressed,’” Corbett said.
“If we can give you enough pleasurable experiences, laughter, smiles, connections and fun, it can offset all those challenges of old age and make you feel like, ‘I actually had a good day. I’m looking forward to my day.’ A lot of people forget you have to have fun and pleasure in life.”
The sports activities seem to be effective: Wedge said as well as tennis she also enjoys horseshoes, tabletop bag ball, ladder ball, whiffle ball, bocce, car shuffleboard, regular shuffleboard and barrel Frisbee.
“They’re good exercise, and I enjoy playing them. I always look forward to different sports, and going on a trip, which we do a lot. It’s just being with the people,” Wedge said. “Being here I’ve made a lot of friends, and we do a lot of things together.”
Schoen, 66, is a lifelong tennis player who also coaches the Middlebury Union High School boys’ tennis team, members of which volunteered this spring to play a “Mini-Wimbledon” with the Project Independence equipment on its outdoor turf surface (which was expanded under Schoen’s watch). It drew a crowd.
“One of my favorite things was when he brought his students to compete,” said Project Independence attendee and Blueberry tennis player Dale Beaulieu during a match break.
Schoen said the very nature of sports helps participants forget their troubles.
“We also know the activity in the brain increases in a positive way when you’re having fun, and when you’re doing sports actually,” Schoen said. “People forget about their pain, because they have to be in the moment with sports. So it’s a wonderful thing.”
Brown, when talking about why she liked playing tennis, provided some evidence to support Schoen’s belief.
“You don’t have time to get unhappy. Everybody has their bad days,” Brown said.
Elderly Services began Project Independence 36 years ago in its former home in the Charter House in downtown Middlebury, but its 12-year-old home off Exchange Street really allowed the sports component to grow, Corbett said.
The standalone building offered a game room and a smaller outdoor turf area. But she acknowledged the sports and games component has taken a step forward in recent years with the pool table donation, the turf expansion (including golf holes), and the new equipment, energy and ideas offered by Schoen and others. For example, Schoen arranged a USTA Grant to pay for the Project Independence tennis equipment.
“The emphasis on sports and games has always been here, but a staff member like Ken Schoen, and he’s got some other buddies here who are very much in love with movement and games and sports themselves, brings a wonderful creative imagination to every day,” Corbett said. “So our 36-year-old emphasis on some movement and exercise has climbed to some new heights recently with Ken and other staff’s imagination about more and more games.”
Project attendees enjoy seeing different offerings.
“Everybody just seems to enjoy it, and Ken is always coming up with new ideas,” Brown said.
Schoen, a former woodworker who made some of the program’s croquet equipment, laughed about skills he never thought he would take advantage of in a late-life career change. 
“I had to take care of my sisters growing up because my parents were always gone. So I had to invent games constantly,” he said. “I never knew I was going to use that skill when I got older.”
Project Independence attendees lobbied for more seniors to sign up.
“They have fantastic meals and people like Ken to keep you entertained,” Brown said. “And they listen to you if you want to just go sit somewhere and talk.”
Wedge said the friendships she makes are invaluable, and all the activities are fun — but just maybe the sports are most vital.
“They’re all equally important, but I think with the sports there’s a lot of participants because it keeps us moving. It keeps us going,” Wedge said. “The sports are a very, very important part of our lives. We look forward to them, be it playing porch pool, bag ball or air hockey. Every day it’s something different.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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