JOHNSBURG – The numbers come echoing out over laughter and muted chitchat, cutting through a well-lit space at the McHenry Township Senior Center.
O-71 ... O-61 ... G-53 ... B-13 ...
“One-three?” a voice asks. “13?”
It’s the weekly Wednesday afternoon bingo game, and there aren’t more than a handful of open seats in the center’s rec room, which is about the size of a basketball court. Some players, in their 60s through their 90s, crack jokes. Others barely peer up from their sheets.
In a literal sense, they’re here for bingo. But there’s a deeper reason.
“I think I would die – Oh, what was the number?” said Carol Hansen, distracted mid-sentence by the start of a new game.
“Yeah,” she starts again. “I just feel like I would kind of wither away if I didn’t stay active.”
Studies have shown that Hansen might be onto something. Earlier this year, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published research linking social isolation with higher mortality rates.
Whereas previous studies had been conflicted on whether it was social isolation or the feeling of loneliness that accelerated death rates, the PNAS study found that individuals with a high degree of social isolation were more likely to die regardless of whether they reported feeling lonely.
The research – collected from 6,500 elderly men and women during the past eight years – found loneliness by itself didn’t have any effect on mortality rates.
“It’s very important for seniors to come out and socialize,” said Rita Boulden, office coordinator for the McHenry Senior Services, which is housed in the township’s senior center. “It’s a definite improvement in their mental health.”
Bingo isn’t the only time this week that Hansen, 69, of Lakemoor, will get out of the house for some social interaction.
She plays the dice game Farkle here on Mondays. She’s in a couple of lunch clubs that meet weekly. She also has COPD, and as such goes to Centegra-McHenry three times a week to receive therapy, which itself offers opportunities to socialize.
“I really keep busy,” Hansen said. Behind her, a man cranks the handle of a wire cage, mixing the bingo numbers.
G-56 ... I-19 ... N-41 ... O-63...
“Six-two?” someone asks.
“We’re usually more talkative,” said Colleen Szramek, 68, of Johnsburg.
Szramek is sitting at a table with five other women. She claims to have so-so bingo luck. Her friends disagree.
Szramek, it turns out, has won $1,200 playing bingo this year, mainly from the VFW and American Legion. She’s won here, too, but the pots are small – usually no more than $5.
“It gets you out of the house,” Szramek said. “Gets you to see other people.”
That’s one challenge seniors face as they age. Because it becomes tougher to get around, and because peers can tend to move away or die, research has shown that people have a tougher time staying socially engaged in later years.
Overall, 28 percent of the population was living alone in 2011 compared with 17 percent in 1970, according to U.S. Census data.
“We have people come out here almost every day,” Boulden said. “They live alone and maybe their families are not in the area. They have no other contacts, no other social opportunities.”
So they’re here, dabbing their sheets with colored paint, listening intently. The laughter dies down as the room anticipates an end.
I-28 ... I-27 ... N-34 ...
“Has 66 been said?”
Make that $1,205 on the year.