Joe Defeats Google, Both Win by
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Prompted By Games People Play

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It seems fitting that my mother, who is 91, moved into the senior residence in Oakland where my cousin Joe, now almost 94, lives. They were raised in a duplex in Corona, Queens, with Joe and his parents living on the top floor, and my mother, her parents, and older sister downstairs. Joe’s father and my grandmother were brother and sister, so even though technically he is my first cousin once removed (I think), I consider him like an uncle.

The engineers ultimately understood that the game kept Joe going, giving him energy and focus.

Wiry and tenacious, Joe has a quirky sense of humor, a knack for magic tricks, and an amazing talent for ping pong. Despite his struggles with Parkinsons disease, Joe still plays ping pong and holds classes for the residents. All the more amazing because he can’t button his shirt and needs his food specially prepared to help him swallow it.

Last year Joe became involved in beta testing utensils that Google has developed for people with Parkinsons. (Google has lots of irons in the fire besides the search engine.) The utensils are engineered to remain stable so that people with hand tremors can safely and sociably eat, keeping them both more independent and connected to others. Joe had been using a new fork and went to the Googleplex in Mountain View to give feedback to the engineers.

There he met with five young men to discuss the fork and possible improvements, and when the meeting was over, the group passed a recreational area with a foosball table. Joe asked, “Do you happen to have ping pong?” The engineers said they did, and Joe suggested playing a game. They found a ping pong table, and I can only image the patronizing smirks among the engineers as they watched 93-year-old Joe, who walks with a shuffle and has tremors.

The smirks soon vanished as Joe beat the first engineer. The second engineer tried harder, and Joe beat him–and the third, fourth, and fifth. The takeaway? We might be surprised at what people can do despite their obvious limitations. The engineers ultimately understood that ping pong keeps Joe going, giving him energy and focus.

Joe’s Parkinsons disease has progressed in recent months, and he moved from his independent studio to an assisted living studio in the same residence. He doesn’t play ping pong as often, but using his Google utensils, still eats in the dining room with my mother, his many friends, and his ping pong students.

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I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Amazing story, Marian. I’m pleased to learn that Google is working on adaptive tools for people with Parkinson’s. We only hear about privacy violations! And what spunk and stamina your “uncle” Joe has. I’m sure that playing ping pong has kept him going for a long time. Good for him!

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Marian, I really admire Joe’s can-do attitude. Playing ping pong and trying new things keep him going despite his disability. Did you see the recent movie about Linda Ronstadt, who is also living with Parkinson’s? It’s called The Sound of my Voice and, while Parkinson’s has robbed her of her amazing voice, on good days she still loves to sing.

    • Marian says:

      Yes, Laurie, I have heard about the movie with Linda Ronstadt. Should be good, I admire her. Joe warned me when he started to do these vocal exercises that sounded like screaming, but they definitely helped his speech. I am glad that Linda can sing for herself.

  3. Suzy says:

    Marian, this story is inspirational! Thank you so much for telling us about Joe, as well as about what Google is doing.. My first husband had Parkinson’s, so I am all too familiar with the havoc it can wreak. I love the idea of these utensils that remain stable. And I love even more that Joe could win at ping pong against all 5 of these young, smirking engineers!

    • Marian says:

      Oh, Suzy, I am sorry your first husband had to go through this. Besides Joe, I have three friends with this struggle. Let’s hope that progress speeds up to help them and others. Google deserves credit for contributing to their quality of life.

  4. Truly amazing story, Marian. My dad, too, had Parkinson’s, but as you’re probably aware, Parkinson’s manifests itself all sorts of different ways. My dad never had tremor issues; his issue was neuropathy. Just saw a wonderful documentary about Linda Ronstadt who also has Parkinson’s. Tragically the effect on her basically incapacitated her marvelous singing voice. Glad to hear that Joe’s experience was so positive.

    • Marian says:

      Tom, sorry about your dad. Yes, Parkinsons manifests in a bunch of ways, and the people I know who have it experience it differently. I recently learned that one symptom is hallucinations such as hearing voices, or very vivid dreams, and my mother told me that Joe had these issues. Fortunately, there are medications that reduce or eliminate these symptoms and he no longer is bothered by hallucinations. He has more than enough to deal with, but his strength and attitude are amazing.

  5. What a touching story, Marian, and I’m so sorry your Dad has to go through this. But isn’t it something how games can be so much more than games? My dad played both golf and poker well into his 90s. Having lost his wife many years before, he still had a reason to wake up and face the day…physical and mental challenges which just happened to be fun.

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