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How A Game Of Spades Can Keep Traditions Alive And Seniors Sharp Through The Pandemic

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

All right, here's some more good pandemic news. All that quality time together assembling jigsaw puzzles and playing card games, well, it's apparently good for your brain, for keeping it healthy. To try this out anecdotally, NPR's Jason Fuller and his wife Kandis Wallace Fuller masked up and got to some spades-playing with her family in Chesapeake, Va.

JASON FULLER, BYLINE: When you hear the sound of cards being shuffled in the South...

(SOUNDBITE OF CARDS SHUFFLING)

FULLER: There's a strong chance a competitive game of spades is underway. Under basic rules, the two of spades is the ultimate trump card, followed by the ace, king, queen and jack. But all bets are off because, well, we're playing with the big and little jokers, something that requires a bit more brainpower.

MOLLY ROBINSON GARRIS: Molly Robinson Garris - and I'm 94 years old.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All I see is two of spades.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, you want to see two of spades.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'll just make sure...

FULLER: Molly Robinson Garris is my experienced partner. Mrs. Garris is my wife's grandmother. I'm allowed to call her Granny, not y'all. Granny's been staying with her oldest daughter, Carolyn Dixon, for the past few months in Chesapeake, Va. She seems happier.

So, Granny, how long have you been playing spades for?

ROBINSON GARRIS: I've been playing cards since I was a teenager.

(LAUGHTER)

FULLER: That's a lot of experience.

ROBINSON GARRIS: We used to play bid whist. But it's just like spades.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Oh, another spade. Aw, darn.

FULLER: Bid whist is close enough to spades. And while Granny and I haven't played spades much together, we're more than holding our own.

This is really pivotal.

Excuse my egging on of my wife and mother-in-law. It happens.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: All right. Woo hoo (ph).

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: You got to go big or stay at home.

FULLER: Things are going pretty well for me and Granny until...

ROBINSON GARRIS: I got a sorry hand this time - a sorry hand, got nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Thank your granddaughter over there.

ROBINSON GARRIS: (Laughter).

FULLER: Granny's either playing possum or really knows how to make the most out of a lousy hand. You be the judge.

ROBINSON GARRIS: See - when you coming out, you're supposed to come out big...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: There you go. There you go. That's what I'm...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON GARRIS: If you ain't coming out big, stay at home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: That's right.

FULLER: From the sound of Granny's emphatic slam, a queen of spades just crashed the party.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Laughter) Change up. You doing good over there. Change this stuff up.

FULLER: I'm in awe. I mean, Granny turns 95 in October. I'm thinking, how was she doing all of this? Spades is not an easy game.

DENISE PARK: It's a really demanding cognitive test - I mean, really demanding.

FULLER: Denise Park is the distinguished university chair in behavioral and brain sciences at The University of Texas. She researches the cognitive neuroscience of aging.

PARK: You have to keep track of all the cards. It's a multitasking situation that, really, I would say, overloads or loads the cognitive system to its maximum ability.

FULLER: Here's Granny flexing her memory from the last hand.

ROBINSON GARRIS: I had a spade, but I had the king and the queen...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: So what'd you get out the kitty?

ROBINSON GARRIS: The three of diamonds, ace and king and queen.

PARK: Especially in the frontal cortex, that's where working memory resides. So it's exercising the part of your brain that involves a lot of reasoning and processing of information and evaluation and decision-making.

FULLER: But Granny doesn't look overwhelmed. As a matter of fact, it's the opposite. Her face is lit up with excitement. And sure, the game is exciting. But it's about the connections you have with the people you're playing with.

PARK: Well, certainly when you see your family and you haven't seen them for a while, the pleasure centers of your brains light up and all sorts of reward centers light up.

FULLER: Granny cracks a smile as her daughter, my mother-in-law, eggs me on, thinking they've got us coming up short.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: How about yours? Got something, Jason?

FULLER: We're about to see on this last hand.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: OK, last one.

FULLER: Last one.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: This sink or swim.

FULLER: This is sink or swim.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: What you got?

FULLER: You have to play.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: But see; you got one card. It doesn't matter.

FULLER: Yeah, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter.

(CROSSTALK)

FULLER: At the end of the day, the final score was 301 to 313. Granny and I lost. I know. But the wit Granny displayed was impressive. She seems more upbeat since moving in with her daughter. Park says most seniors don't have the luxury of living with their children, but they can stimulate their minds and stay sharp by incorporating fun games and puzzles into their daily routines. That's at least until everyone is vaccinated and those things called hugs are in greater supply.

Jason Fuller, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.