Research suggests ping pong can help Alzheimer’s patients, but these folks just want to play — and win

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Up until two years ago, the last time Mildred Patterson had held a ping pong paddle was during the Second World War.

Then a table showed up at her retirement home.

Now, Patterson is playing every Thursday morning. She’s the home’s current women’s champion and holds the women’s record for longest rally: 300 shots.

Not bad for 89.

“I hold my own, we’ll put it that way,” she said.

Patterson is one of many at the Salvation Army Meighen Retirement Residence who’ve become dedicated ping pong players, benefiting from the physical and cognitive exercise, according to staff at the home.

Mildred Patterson

Mildred Patterson is the women’s champion at the Salvation Army Meighen Retirement Residence in midtown Toronto. (Martin Trainor/CBC News)

Some intriguing research out of Britain appears to back them up.

A group called the Bounce Alzheimer’s Therapy Foundation (BAT) suggests ping pong could even hold the key to reducing symptoms in patients with early Alzheimer’s disease, such as cognitive decline, and could improve long-term memory. Researchers working in collaboration with a neuroscience team at Kings College London believe playing the game helps improve blood flow to a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which plays an important part in creating new memories.

But residents at Meighen pick up the paddles not so much to keep their brains healthy but for the sheer fun of it.

Gordon Cressy & Resident

Former Toronto city councillor Gordon Cressy, right, pictured here with a Meighen resident, helped get a ping pong table for the retirement residence. (Martin Trainor/CBC News)

More than a dozen residents at the home near Yonge Street and Davisville Avenue were cheering Thursday as players took turns in games at the table.

Patterson relied on pinpoint backhands and her attacking style — “I have good serve”, she said — but lost a tight game.

There are tournaments here, trophies and fierce competition.

“That’s part of the game,” David Hammond, the current men’s champ, said.

The 87 year-old plays a crafty, spin-filled game he uses to wrong-foot opponents.

“If he’s over here, you put it over there,” Hammond said. “Deception is a big part of the game.”

Ping pong became an important Thursday morning tradition at the home back in 2016 when longtime Toronto community organizer and activist John Piper, who has early Alzheimer’s, moved into the Meighen residence.

Cressy with Residents

Gordon Cressy, centre, with John Piper, left, and another Meighen resident during the Thursday ping pong tournament. (Martin Trainor/CBC News)

Former Toronto city councillor Gordon Cressy, Piper’s “dear friend” and decades-old ping pong partner, helped get Meighen the table, which was donated by Piper’s friend, media mogul Allan Slaight.

“Great, great times,” Piper said of his and Cressy’s ping pong past.

Piper says continuing to play ping pong is helping him.

“This is a lot of fun,” he said.

Caroline MacDonald, Meighen’s activation coordinator, says retirement homes often struggle to get men interested in physical activities.

Cressy playing ping pong

Gordon Cressy about to lean into a serve. (Martin Trainor/CBC News)

But that hasn’t been the case with ping pong.

“They don’t want to go to the programs, but this, it’s taken off,” MacDonald said.

It’s helping residents with their hand-eye coordination and balance, MacDonald said, despite what she calls a few “tumbles.”

“He landed in the Christmas tree,” she said of one player. “The Christmas tree fell, but he was ok.”

Staff work as “spotters” for residents with balance problems who still want to play.

For Cressy, ping pong has been a lifelong passion.

Prior to politics he was junior table tennis champion.

And afterwards, he started playing competitively again on the seniors circuit.

Cressy helps organize every Thursday, setting up games and keeping score. Sometimes he’ll bring another competitive senior player to inspire residents.

“I think it exceeded all of our expectations,” he said.

With his friend Piper in mind, Cressy is following the latest research on ping pong’s benefits for Alzheimer’s patients.

He hopes the sport is helping residents, and he knows they’re having fun.

“It’s one of those little things that grew, and it’s very special,” Cressy said.

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Research suggests ping pong can help Alzheimer’s patients, but these folks just want to play — and win

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