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  • Writer's pictureNancy Griffin

PLAYING TO WIN! Symposium Advocates Aging as a Team Sport

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

Global Symposium on Aging Magnificently, presented by Dr. Bill Thomas in partnership with Lifespark™ and The Eden Alternative®, shares the benefits of gamification for older adults.

As a continuation of his mission to improve the lives of older adults, Dr. Bill Thomas launched the online course PLAYING TO WIN! A Global Symposium on Aging Magnificently. Wrapping up next week, the 10-week online course presented by Lifespark™, in partnership with The Eden Alternative®, brought together 250 participants from 13 countries.

Topics in the weekly sessions include:

  • From Ageism to Anti Ageism

  • Advancing Aging Literacy

  • Declinism versus Developmentalism

  • Anti-Aging versus Anti-Frailty

  • MESH and the Rhythm Of Daily Life

  • The Power of Planning

  • SMART Goals

  • The Population and Health Revolution

  • Wellness Begins with “We.”

A geriatrician, professor, entrepreneur, playwright, and performer, Dr. Thomas has worn many hats, including founding The Eden Alternative and Green House Project. In his most recent role as Lifespark Independence Officer, he founded the SPARK Performance League with League Commissioner Angie McAllister. The benefits of competition have been remarkable. Participants gain strength, purpose, and belonging—all cornerstones of aging well.

The Leagues featured teams of older adults who participate in a modified "Tryathlon" tournament, remote-operated forklift racing, the “Grip Games” to increase grip strength, and the Spark Challenge, a quiz show about aging. The benefits are so compelling Dr. Thomas and Lifespark knew they needed to spread the word. Infusing gamification into PLAYING TO WIN!, players are grouped into four teams to compete for the highest scores in the weekly quizzes. The winning team donates funds to the charity of their choice.

The Four Lifespark Pillars

“I wrote the four books because to synthesize everything I've learned over the course of my career and put it into the service of enhancing strength, purpose and belonging. We call those four books the Lifespark Pillars because they are an evidence-based expression of what we believe and what we're trying to accomplish,” Dr. Thomas told SeniorTrade.

Aging Magnificently is intended to help people break free from the myth that aging is inevitable decline. The second book MESH stands for Move, Eat, Sleep and Heal and is about commonsense approaches to aging well. The next one The Good Life is about planning for a better future, and the last book Better Together is about aging as a team sport. When we find new ways of being better together, it's good for everybody."

Here are some key takeaways from the PLAYING TO WIN! Symposium:

The Myth of Independence

The Symposium’s key message is aging as a team sport. As quoted from Better Together: “An ancient Irish proverb, ‘Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine’ translates as ‘In the shelter of each other the people live.’ For too long, our society has confused independence with the fantasy of holding our own against the hazards of life. We become stronger, healthier, and happier individuals when we come together as a community. When we are young, we are told to stand on our own two feet and choose our own path. The long struggle for independence, and its attendant hustle and bustle, often leads us to forget what the forest knows: nature conflicts with a ‘heroic’ narrative of human aging that tells us ‘successful aging’ requires us to grow old alone.

“Americans of all ages, but especially older people, have been deceived by a lunatic mythology that values ‘independence’ above all else. This independence myth perpetuates an ‘aging in place’ fantasy that leads millions of people to cling to homes and neighborhoods that no longer suit or serve them well. It also leads people to refuse simple forms of assistance that could help them continue living on their terms. The words ‘I don’t need any help’ have never been true for anyone. Every ‘me,’ at every age, needs a ‘we.’”

Loneliness Kills

The course drives home the message that loneliness and social isolation are damaging to health and quality of life. A JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) study published in 2019 showed that, among people over the age of 50, having a strong life purpose leads to improvements in both physical and mental health and enhances overall quality of life.

Studies have linked social isolation and loneliness to an increased risk of heart disease, obesity, anxiety, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease. Among people living with heart failure, loneliness quadruples the risk of death and is associated with a 68% increased risk of hospitalization and a 57% increased risk of emergency department visits. Loneliness has a health impact similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and increases the risk of premature death by 30%. Lonely people are 50% more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social connections.

The Power of Planning

Life Plans are living documents that change over time. Wellness is no accident; it takes thought, partnership, persistence, and tangible measurements. We make plans because we sense a gap between the way things are and the way we want them to be. Something’s not right and we feel a need to fix it. But what exactly is it that needs fixing? Only you know. Only you can decide where the next chapter of your life will take you, and how you will get there. Thoughtful conversations help us identify what matters most to us. There is no substitute for having access to the knowledge and tools that can speed us on our way.

Dr. Thomas uses the term “life experience” to describe living the life we want, the life we choose for ourselves. This is what matters most to people. When we challenge ourselves to embrace a goal something changes inside of us. Verbalizing a goal puts us “on the record” with the universe. Those who seek growth and improvement over time need to track their progress along the way.

Risk and Gamification

Older people need more risk. Defined as entering into a situation where you don't know the outcome, Dr. Thomas says risk is an essential mechanism for creating strength, purpose, and belonging. “Not everybody needs to be a skydiver or a deep-sea diver,” but taking risks through competitions like the Spark Performance League not only builds team reciprocity, but also improves cognitive function and motor skills. I want everybody to use gamification and competition in new ways to create some advantages for elders. We all need both the joy of victory and the heartbreak of defeat to really be alive.”

Moving Wellness From “Me” To “We”

“We have a big ‘Me’ problem in Wellness—it has disintegrated into an individual,” says Thomas. “I like to point out to people that Wellness begins with we. We need to shift our focus to the level of community. The real ticket to healthy old age is to have lots of reciprocity in your life. Lots of relationships, lots of situations where you are depending on somebody and somebody's depending on you.”

Spread the Word

Based on the impact PLAYING TO WIN’s education, we expect gamification to grow in senior living. Look for performance leagues to pop up around the globe. Contact Spark Performance League Commissioner Angie McCallister at for more information. Help spread the word!

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