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For Seniors Looking To Stay Sharp In The Pandemic, Try A Game Of Spades

Molly Garris, 94, moved in with one of her daughters during the pandemic. The move has meant she's able to enjoy a game of spades, one of her favorite pastimes, with her family, including her grandson-in-law, <em>All Things Considered</em> producer Jason Fuller.
Molly Garris, 94, moved in with one of her daughters during the pandemic. The move has meant she's able to enjoy a game of spades, one of her favorite pastimes, with her family, including her grandson-in-law, <em>All Things Considered</em> producer Jason Fuller.

When you hear the sound of cards being shuffled in the South, there's a good chance that a hearty, yet competitive game of spades is underway. This definitely holds true for 94-year-old Molly Garris of Skippers, Va., and her family.

Full disclosure, I'm one of the newest members of the family by way of marriage. My wife, Kandis Wallace Fuller, is the granddaughter of Garris. So, I'd heard how engaged and cerebral she is when it comes to spades, but never witnessed her play until recently.

Masked up and socially distanced, I sat down with Garris, whom I affectionately call Granny, to be her partner in a game of spades. We played at the home of her oldest daughter, Carolyn Dixon, in Chesapeake, Va.

Granny has been living with Dixon since October when her daughters convinced her to move so she wouldn't be so isolated during the pandemic.

"It was difficult for her because not only has she always lived within 10 miles of her home, but she still cooks her own breakfasts, bathes on her own and washes her own clothes," says Sheila Garris Wallace, Granny's youngest daughter and my wife's mother.

While it's difficult to measure social isolation and loneliness, recent studies found that social isolation is associated with an almost 50% increased risk of dementia. As the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths grew so did the concern from Granny's daughters.

But since the move they say Granny's been upbeat. She now has consistent company and ample opportunities to partake in one of her favorite pastimes: a game of spades.

Kandis Wallace Fuller talks with her grandmother, Molly Garris, before a game of spades.
Jason Fuller / NPR
Kandis Wallace Fuller talks with her grandmother, Molly Garris, before a game of spades.

On this particular day, 0ur opponents were none other than my wife and my mother-in-law.

For those of you unfamiliar with the premise of spades, it's a hierarchical game where the two of spades serves as the ultimate trump card, followed by the ace, king, queen and jack. Spades is a game within a game requiring you and your partner to be on the same page without communicating with each other.

Judging from Granny's expression, she wasn't overwhelmed during this hand.

It's also worth noting that she has more than 80 years of experience playing cards. Spades, crossword puzzles and the Game Show Network keep her stimulated and abreast with current events. It's a steady routine for someone her age.

"I've been playing cards since I was a teenager," Granny said to me. "But we weren't playing this. We were playing bid whist. But it's just like spades."

While there's no age cutoff for spades, witnessing a 94-year-old play at such a high level was impressive and warranted a conversation with Denise Park, who researches the cognitive neuroscience of aging at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Park says spades is a highly demanding cognitive game.

"You have to keep track of all the cards, there's a huge memory load. It's really fast," says Park. "So there's a huge speed load, it's a multitasking situation that really, I would say, overloads or loads the cognitive system to its maximum ability."

Granny demonstrated her keen judgment when it came to card selection, regardless of the cards she'd been dealt, and which cards to hold for the end. Park says what I witnessed was Granny's frontal cortex operating with precision.

"That's where working memory resides," Park says. "So it's exercising the part of your brain that involves a lot of reasoning and processing of information and evaluation and decision making."

At the end of the day, Granny and I lost to 301 to 313, but the wit she displayed was impressive.

Park admits that the setting and the people Granny plays with likely contribute to the seemingly sharp reflexes demonstrated during the game.

"Well, certainly, when you see your family and you haven't seen them for a while the pleasure centers and all sorts of rewards centers light up," Park says.

While moving in with children isn't an option for all seniors, Park says incorporating routines that are both fun and challenging keep the mind exercised and sharp — at least until more families are fully vaccinated and those affectionate embraces called hugs are in greater supply.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.