John Hale’s “Sudoku for Seniors” project has flourished in New England, with the brain exercising puzzle game has come to a variety of new senior centers. Hale created the project in Landmark’s Self-Expression and Leadership Program, and Vermont’s Rutland Herald newspaper featured him in a story recently.
Seniors, students unite for sudoku challenge
by Josh O’Gorman
CASTLETON — Social isolation and mental atrophy are potential dangers of growing old, but a recently formed group is combating those trends with an activity that’s both intellectual and multigenerational.
More than 40 people gathered Saturday at the Lake House Pub and Grille to raise money for Sudoku for Seniors, a loose-knit collection of volunteers formed by Castleton resident John Hale, who has joined his passion for the puzzle game with a desire to encourage public service.
The first sudoku puzzle was created by Howard Garns and published in 1979, but it did not gain popularity until the Times of London began publishing the puzzle daily in 2004. The name comes from the Japanese and means “the numbers must occur only once,” an apt description of the 81-square grid that contains numbers between one and nine. While the puzzle appears mathematical, the many people at the Lake House said math has little to do with it.
“I don’t want to say the numbers aren’t important, but it’s the logic behind the numbers that are important,” said Lew Tezak, of Castleton. Three years ago Tezak received a kidney transplant, and while he was in surgery, his friend Hale waited and to pass the time he picked up a sudoku book.
Hale enjoyed the puzzles, and while taking a personal development class with Landmark Education to work through his own personal challenges — he identified himself as a procrastinator — he was inspired to use the puzzle to reach out to senior citizens. Hale, who is 64, has been retired for six years but in his own words “wanted to do something more.”
He began teaching sudoku at the Homestead Senior Center in Castleton and reached out to students at Castleton State College and Green Mountain College in Poultney and College for volunteers. One of the students who responded was Elliott Shor, 23, a student at Green Mountain College studying environmental management and business.
Shor said he saw an advertisement posted on campus looking for volunteers and Feb. 3 he taught his first class at the Homestead Senior Center.
He now teaches weekly and every week brings one or two friends with him, and he believes the benefits for the seniors are twofold.
“They get about an hour-and-a-half to two hours of mental stimulation and they have a young energetic person to do an activity with,” Shor said.
The cognitive exercise was a point echoed by several of the people attending Saturday’s fund-raiser.
“It’s a good game to keep your brain limber after a certain age,” said Tricia Lawrence, 50, of Rutland, who said the sudoku puzzle in the Rutland Herald has been part of her morning routine for the last two years.
Hale said the fundraiser was to defray the cost of sudoku materials- pencil, paper, easels- as well as 50 copies of a sudoku book edited by Will Shortz, New York Times crossword editor and editor of more than 400 crossword puzzle and sudoku books. Hale purchased the books at a discount through Annie’s Book Stop in Rutland and had a volunteer bring them to Shortz’s home in Yonkers, N.Y. to be autographed.
Shortz demonstrated his support for Sudoku for Seniors with his autographs and a prerecorded video message to start the morning. The message drew a few gasps from those who recognized his voice as puzzlemaster on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition Sunday.”
“Thank you for supporting Sudoku for Seniors and happy hunting,” Shortz said to the crowd, who then split into beginner, intermediate and advanced “black belt” groups. Puzzles themselves range from pleasantly simple to infuriatingly challenging.
While Shor taught the beginner group and Hale and Lawrence led the intermediates, Julanne Sharrow, of Shrewsbury, led the black belt group.
“One thing different about sudoku than the crossword is the numbers don’t lie,” said Sharrow, a former town lister. “No matter what, you have to make the numbers come out right. It makes your brain work.”
Sudoku for Seniors has expanded to involve Young at Heart Senior Center in Poultney, the Meadows, the Gables and Mountain View Center Genesis Healthcare in Rutland and Rutland Healthcare & Rehabilitation. While Hale is thrilled watching the growth and positive effects of what he’s started, to hear him talk to his intermediate competitors Saturday he sounds like a man at peace.
“It’s like I tell people doing a puzzle and in life: be Zen, go with the flow and be happy with the journey,” he said.