MARQUETTE - Laughter filled the room as some avid players gathered for a game or two of mahjong at the Marquette Senior Center recently.
And while the objective was an afternoon of fun and fellowship, the end result was something substantially more: Keeping the brain healthy.
Mahjong is a relatively new activity at the center, which also schedules games of bridge, cribbage, Scrabble and pinochle on a regular basis.
From the left, Lois Stanley, Colleen Roberts and Vickie Lambert play mahjong at the Marquette Senior Center recently. The game has become a hit at the center in recent months. In addition to being fun, it’s also a game that exercises the mind. (Journal photo by Renee Prusi)
"Mary Wojcik was the one who taught us to play," said senior center mahjong player Lois Stanley. "Mary has a beautiful game set she brought in and she was great about showing us how to play.
"The set we use now is from someone who plays who asked for a mahjong set as a Christmas present," Stanley added.
The game, which involves a set of tiles, seems complicated to the uninitiated, Stanley said.
"We have enjoyed learning how to play," she said. "We use 'cheat sheets' or guides to help us along still."
Vickie Lambert, who also learned the game at the senior center, said it's something anyone would like.
"It's like playing cards. It looks like Scrabble because of the tiles and the racks you put them on," Lambert said. "But it really is more like playing cards."
Stanley said, "At first it's hard to remember the rules because, well, they sort of don't make sense. But the rules are hard and fast."
Player Colleen Roberts added: "And there's no quibbling. The rules are the rules. Mahjong is a lot of luck, but it's a lot of strategy, too."
Preferably, the ladies said, the game is played with four participants, but adjustments can be done easily.
"If there's only three, you can use a dummy hand," Stanley said. "And if you have extra people, you can take turns sitting out and watching. That really helps when you're learning."
A game starts with the roll of the dice to determine who goes first, that person becoming a dealer with specific duties. Each player gets 13 tiles to start.
An intricate system of passing tiles and discarding tiles.
"The game involves strategy," Stanley said. "And chance. And memory."
Which is what makes it so valuable, said Ruth Almen, regional director for the Alzheimer's Association Upper Peninsula Region.
"Some memory loss we just have to live with as we grow older, but playing games, getting out to the senior center or wherever to spend time talking with people, taking an art class or a dance class or a class at Northern Michigan University, working out at the YMCA, or walking with friends, all helps," Almen said.
"Our senior centers provide one of the best and most accessible options for our seniors to live a brain healthy lifestyle," Almen said. "Physical activity, a chance to have a healthy meal, to learn new things and to stay involved in your community are the best recipe we know to care for your brain.
"Also, all of their staff are trained to respond when any senior may have a question about memory loss that seems to be more serious, by referrals to doctors or to the Alzheimer's Association," Almen said.
But no matter how diligent one is about keeping an active lifestyle, sometimes Alzheimer's interferes.
"If it is Alzheimer's disease, however, it is a disease that can not be dealt with by these activities," Almen said. "It's the tricky part of aging that people need to know - when memory loss may not be normal, and that is impacting their ability to function or their family member's ability to function."
The national Alzheimer's Association's website offers a page specifically on staying active: http://www.alz. org/we_can_help_stay_mentally_active.asp.
"You'll see it actually outlines ways to keep your brain healthy as we grow older: physical activity, healthy diet, socially active and mentally active," Almen said. "These things can help with memory loss, since our brains age the same way as our eyes, knees and muscles do."
The mahjong players at the Marquette Senior Center said they have grown to love the game and encourage other seniors to go to the center to give mahjong a try.
For more information on when mahjong or other games are being played, call the center at 228-0456.
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.