WINTER GARDEN, Fla. — The newest arrival at Health Central Park nursing home is barely a year old, but it’s already making an impact with the elderly.

The west Orange County, Fla., nursing home is using Apple iPad 2 tablets to jump-start residents’ memory, mobility and social skills that have deteriorated through age, Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia.

“It came to us as a happy accident,” said Judy Skilton, Health Central Park’s director. “What started out as one resident’s curiosity about … an iPhone turned into something that is helping them spell, track items, make choices and read words. It’s amazing.”

The iPad’s innovative approach with the elderly could open doors to new geriatric and Alzheimer’s research as the nation’s baby boomers near retirement age and tablets increase in popularity, experts say.

“They are on the cutting edge of technology and geriatric care,” said LuMarie Polivka-West, president of Florida Health Care Association, the state’s largest advocacy organization for long-term-care providers and the elderly. “We hope to encourage the use of this new technology.”

In Florida, 3.2 million residents are age 65 and older, U.S census figures show. Alzheimer’s Association statistics reveal that nearly 13 percent of those suffer from the disease.

Devices that monitor an elderly person’s movements, habits and temperature in their home, and remind them to take their pills have existed in the market for years — with varying degrees of success — but the iPad is one of the first in the high-tech field to interact with them.

Activities coordinator Ed Dobski said residents whose hands are atrophied or unable to type on a keyboard or hold a mouse will swipe their hand across the tablet’s smooth glass.

“It’s lightweight and looks like a book,” he said. “It’s instant gratification.”

The iPad 2, which starts at $499, weighs a little over a pound, and it’s much thinner than a magazine.

Lester Windham, an 80-year-old retired butcher from Virginia, used to be isolated and quiet — a behavior shared by most men in nursing homes — but thanks to what he calls “The Black Box,” he now interacts with workers and other residents.

“I asked my daughter to buy me one because I like it,” Windham said while he played Memory Game with Dobski. “I won the first game!”

His daughter, Brenda Roy, said the device has improved her father’s condition and their relationship.

“Now we don’t just sit there and look at the squirrels,” Roy said. “(The iPad 2) keeps his memory going. He’s a great checker player.”

Workers had tried using a Wii to develop motor skills, but it proved too cumbersome for those with mobility problems.

Recreation-therapy assistant Marian Yandle said the Talking Tom Cat app, which features an animated feline that repeats what it is told, encouraged a 99-year-old resident to drink her fluids.

“She watched the cat drink a cup of milk. Then she took her own cup and drank her fluids. We were very excited,” Yandle said. “She also likes the music app and sings to Shirley Temple’s ‘On the Good Ship Lollipop.’ She knows all the words.”

Researchers across the country are using Apple’s tablets for similar applications to engage the elderly.

Tony Marsh and Jack Rejeski, health and exercise-science professors at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, in 2010 helped develop the Mobility Assessment Tool for the iPad.

MAT consists of videos showing animated figures performing daily tasks such as climbing stairs and walking. The videos not only help senior citizens picture themselves doing these tasks, but they offer some insight of their clients’ limitations.

But tests subjects in pilot runs encountered obstacles such as those at the Winter Garden nursing home before they were evaluated on the iPad.

“People not accustomed to a mouse had trouble coordinating the cursor. It took them close to an hour to complete the video and questions,” Rejeski said. “We tried the software on a computer with a touch screen, and it cut the time in half.”

Marsh said that the iPad tablets have helped older people become more aware of their level of functioning — the first step to rehabilitation.

The pair is testing their iPad software in Canada, Brazil and Colombia as part of a multiyear project funded by the National Institutes of Health to assess the mobility of older adults.

“These devices have an increased potential to aid people preserve their memory,” Marsh said. “They can monitor progress and, in a way, back you up.”