Delaney Crews (left), 15, waits for Edward Crews (right), 18, to make his next move while playing chess in downtown Bath on Saturday. Three chess tables and seats, made by Bath Tech students, were recently added to the corner of Front and Elm Streets for the public to use. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

An organization striving to make Midcoast communities welcoming to people of all ages hopes three chess tables installed on a busy downtown Bath street corner will help spark connections between people who might not otherwise cross paths.

Age Friendly Communities of the Lower Kennebec commissioned the three concrete chess tables and chairs now sitting on the corner of Front and Elm streets in downtown Bath. Bath Councilor and organization volunteer Phyllis Bailey said the group wanted to create a public space in Bath where people of all ages could come together, play and meet someone new. She said Bath residents’ willingness and ability to do that has been stifled during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve all been hammered during the pandemic by the loss of face-to-face contact,” said Bailey. “If we can promote the development of public spaces where people can sit down and engage with each other, no matter who they are, then that’s probably a good thing. It helps us be open to people who are different who we might not otherwise encounter. It helps us drop some of the barriers we put up sometimes when we perceive someone as being different from us.”

Stephen Moriarty of West Bath found himself playing chess against 12-year-old Ephraim Burke on Saturday during a small kick-off event to introduce the tables to the community. Moriarty said he was “intimidated by the game, and particularly intimidated by Ephraim because he’s really good, but as we played, it was fun to learn the game and strategies from him. I had a blast.”

Burke, who has been playing chess since he was 5, said he likes the new tables and would be more than willing to sit down with a stranger again to play.

Age Friendly Communities of the Lower Kennebec, which works within Bath, Arrowsic, Georgetown, Phippsburg, West Bath and Woolwich, received two grants from the Davenport Trust and AARP to purchase the materials for the tables and chairs, said Bailey. Vocational students at Bath Tech constructed the tables and seats. Playing pieces for public use are held at Maine Street Design Co. across the street if players don’t have their own.

Similar installations can be found in public spaces such as Central Park in New York City and Harvard Square in Boston.

People Plus Executive Director Stacy Frizzle-Edgerton has witnessed board games act as a bridge between people of different ages, likely because “games are a medium that everyone understands.”

“They’re a platform for social engagement in a nonthreatening way and our society needs that now more than ever,” said Frizzle-Edgerton. “Checkers and chess are two games in particular that straddle the generational block. “It’s a lovely thing to think that you might be walking down the street and there’s someone waiting at a board for a game and you can sit down and play.”

Ephraim Burke, 12, teaches Stephen Moriarty of West Bath a new strategy while playing chess in downtown Bath on Saturday. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

Frizzle-Edgerton said one of the more popular programs People Plus offers is intergenerational Bananagrams, a word game similar to Scrabble. She has found when young people and older adults play games together, both parties may start off feeling wary and intimidated. By the end of the game, however, they’re usually enjoying themselves and learning from one another.

“Older adults can get curmudgeonly, so when they sit down and play a game with younger adults, they’re reminded of who they used to be and it brings them back to their youth,” said Frizzle-Edgerton. “At first it can seem intimidating to a pre-teen or teen, but they might clamor for it once they get used to it because many of them might not have access to their own grandparents.”

For the Midcoast’s older adult population in particular, simply playing a game with someone new might have a positive effect on their physical and mental health, said Frizzle-Edgerton.

“People eat better and take care of themselves better when they spend time with other people,” she said. “If they know they’re going to walk down to the corner and play checkers for a few hours, they’re more likely to take a shower and eat lunch first.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, loneliness and social isolation in older adults are serious public health risks because it puts people at risk for dementia and other serious medical conditions like heart disease and stroke.

A study by the CDC found social isolation was associated with about a 50% percent increased risk of dementia, and poor social relationships was linked with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.

In addition to impacting a person’s physical health, loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression and anxiety, according to the CDC.

Bailey said the organization had some funding left over after the three tables were built, so the group plans to purchase a few more tables to place outside the Plant Home, an assisted living facility in Bath’s South End.

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