Seniors keep decades-long Mahjong fun alive amid pandemic
YOLO COUNTY NEWS

From left, Pam Hofstad, Jan Bridge and Diane McGee sport their new Mahj On! shirts. The three are members of the Davis Senior Center's mahjong playing group, which has stayed connected online. Owen Yancher/Enterprise photo

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Seniors keep decades-long Mahjong fun alive amid pandemic

Her last name may be Bridge, but Janice will be the first to tell you her game of choice is actually Mahjong.

One of almost three dozen seniors who have played the tile-based pastime weekly from noon to 4 p.m. at the Davis Senior Center for the better part of the last two decades, Bridge calls it “addictive.”

“It has the tactile aspect of playing with the tiles,” notes Bridge. “It has the logic challenges between calculating percentages of drawing certain pieces. And then it has all kinds of social interaction.”

But that later facet of Mahjong has been lacking for Davis seniors since the start of shelter-in-place orders.

And for a group like Bridge’s, the separation has been close to unbearable. That is, until this past Monday, when the gang was finally able to reunite after nearly four months apart.

“We’d been around each other for years,” Bridge says. “We knew about each others’ grandchildren, kids weddings, when somebody’s family member was sick — and then all the sudden we had nothing.”

But Davis’ 2011 Citizen of the Year, was determined to reconnect the tight-knit group of friends.

Meeting face-to-face momentarily to collect group T-shirts at Bridge’s 凯发体育官方sporthome in Central Davis Monday, they now each wear matching gear from 凯发体育官方sporthome while playing Mahjong online.

“Bill Sbarra, one of our players, suggested we try playing virtually,” she says. “And we were all skeptical, but now we’re on there every afternoon.”

Using Sbarra’s “Mahj On!” mantra (a play on words of ‘March On’), another member, Judy Mehravari got the ball rolling on the t-shirt front, crafting a design along with Sbarra, Bridge and both Ink Monkey graphic designer Dan Aguilar and manager Felicia Baldwin.

Traditionally played with a set of 144 tiles and four players, Mahjong’s origins date back as early as the 15th century to the time of China’s Qing dynasty. The game requires tactics, observation, and memory strategies — elements of cognitive training that clinical studies suggest may reduce the risk or delay the development of cognitive impairment and memory loss.

A neuropsychology specialist at UC Davis, Dr. Sarah Tomaszewski Farias points to exercising one’s memory, identifying patterns and general problem solving as “active ingredients” of cognitive training — activities likely to provide benefits to the brain.

Dr. Sarah Tomaszewski Farias

Directing the clinical core of the California State Alzheimer’s Disease Center at UCD, Farias’ long-standing research interests have focused on examining how cognitive and non-cognitive factors impact adults’ ability to function independently as they age.

A professor of neurology, Farias says stimulating the brain through social interaction, just as the Senior Center’s Mahjong playing group does, also helps adults reduce stress, which is known to have negative effects on the brain. 

Currently serving as a primary investigator in the Alzheimer’s Association’s POINTER trial, along with UCD professor of epidemiology, Dr. Rachel Whitmer, Farias is studying how lifestyle interventions (via cognitive training, engaging in a regime of physical exercise and a healthy diet) may help prevent cognitive decline and dementia among older adults at risk.

“This pandemic has forced everyone to find new ways to connect and interact with the world and engage in meaningful activities,” Farias says. And even though some virtual activities aren’t as satisfying for seniors, she believes “after the pandemic is over many of these new ways of interacting will remain in place.”

A game widely associated with superstitions, Mahjong participants will often sit in the same seats or wear certain trinkets each time they play.

But for now, the only outfits these local seniors need are their new lucky shirts — ones they hope to be able to wear together in-person someday soon as they continue to Mahj-On.

Notes: Because Mahjong in-person requires fairly close contact for extended periods of time, it is unlikely the group will play together physically until well into 2021. However, locals interested in getting information about Davis Senior Center’s Mahjong group or how to play virtually via “Real Mah Jongg Online” can contact Bridge at [email protected]

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