If someone had asked Kris Niebler to create the worst nightmare for a senior center, it would have been a pandemic. Finding fun ways for seniors to socialize is Niebler’s job, as program specialist at the Coon Rapids Senior Center.
“So we’re taking a negative and we’re making a positive and having some fun in a safe environment,” she said. “We’ve really had to reinvent ourselves.”
That’s why a parking lot near Coon Rapids’ soccer complex has been transformed this month into a socially distanced outdoor bingo parlor, with dozens playing in their cars.
“It’s bingo time!” Niebler announced Monday afternoon over her microphone as Coon Rapids residents in 30 cars honked their horns, pens in hand and ready to play.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Ralph Wiehle, 87, with a chuckle, “but we didn’t win.”
The pandemic has forced senior centers across the country to get creative, safely, and car bingo has become a popular activity, Niebler said. The idea was shared among the Minnesota Association of Senior Services, and she picked it up.
“These people count on us. This is their livelihood, their social life,” she said.
When Wiehle and Betty Greenly, 87, saw the ad for parking lot bingo, they jumped at the opportunity. Theirs was the first car to pull up Monday, eager to honk their horn for a shot at winning a $10 gift certificate for takeout food at a local restaurant.
Wiehle and Greenly, both widowed, typically spend several days a week at the senior center in addition to going out for coffee every morning and people-watching.
“We’re tired of not going anywhere. That’s the hardest thing,” Greenly said from the passenger seat.
Niebler said visitors to the senior center are used to being engaged in activities like day trips, card clubs and square dancing.
“They are very independent, very vibrant. They should be on cruises, visiting grandchildren,” she said. “And instead they’re sitting in a car playing parking lot bingo. But it’s something.”
The game starts with masked volunteers going car to car with packets filled with playing cards and a few pieces of candy. Then players listen to numbers called over loud speakers, tuning their radios to 97.9 FM to follow along.
Their instructions: honk once to repeat the number, twice for a bingo.
Before the pandemic, Mary Mika, 87, bounced around to three senior centers in the north metro each week to play cribbage. But she said bingo in her car is a neat idea and better than doing nothing.
“I was kind of bored, so it’s nice they got this,” she said. “I go to the bank, I go to church and I go to the grocery store. That’s about it. Not much running around ... It’s terrible.”
Curt Hendricks, 57, drove a few blocks to the bingo site with his Olde English Bulldogge, Zeus, in tow.
“I love playing bingo. I used to go to the church basement with my grandma, so this is very reminiscent,” he said — adding that playing in a parking lot amid a pandemic makes for an unusual twist.
Longtime senior center volunteer Gordy Chapin, 67, of Andover, typically drives the senior center van or bus to bring people to activities. But on Monday, he was directing traffic to stagger the parking before spinning the bingo cage.
“I’m hoping the pandemic passes and people can get back to living normal lives,” he said.
For now, Niebler said, they will continue hosting events from the parking lot, whether it’s bingo or outdoor concerts. They’re busy drumming up ideas for the winter to find other ways to safely socialize.
“These are the golden years,” she said. “These are the best years of their life, and everything is just frozen in time right now for them.”