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The ravaging illness of dementia is fast becoming one of the developed world’s most pressing health concerns. While most cases still remain incurable, a ground-breaking project in Scotland is using the memory-provoking power of football to provide some remarkable relief.
By Stephen Sullivan, Glasgow
A sense of hopelessness is what comes
across most when Irene Grey describes her initial experiences of watching her longterm partner Walter gradually develop Alzheimer’s disease, one of the most common forms of dementia. “He had a shed out in the garden with all his tools and he always knew where everything was,” Irene tells FIFA World as
she recalls the onset of Walter’s illness. “Then he started coming in and saying that I had moved these tools. He saw nothing wrong – he couldn’t see himself doing these things. But it was then that I realised we needed a bit of help. And you know that your life is never going to be the same again, no matter how hard you try.
“It is not like a physical injury you can bandage up,” she points out. “It’s invisible – you can’t touch it. It’s also stressful for friends and family, and the challenge is there seven days a week, 24 hours a day. It’s just so sad.” Unfortunately, Irene and Walter’s story is far from rare. As life expectancy has steadily risen, the incidence of dementia
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has also increased. There are currently 36 million diagnosed sufferers worldwide, and according to a recent study, only the discovery of a cure can prevent that number from swelling to over 115 million by 2050. The numbers tell only half the story, with the most common symptoms – memory loss, mood changes, difficulties with communication and reasoning – making dementia one of the most feared illnesses. As an afﬂiction that robs its sufferers of their passions and identities, it can also have a devastating effect on their loved ones. As the many different types of dementia progress, it can become increasingly difﬁcult to ﬁnd a way through the “fog” which clouds the minds of sufferers. But it is exactly in meeting this challenge that football has been found to be unexpectedly effective. The discovery began back in 2009 when Michael White, club historian at Falkirk FC, started taking along some old football photographs to various local care homes. White had already been giving talks at the homes for some time, but had seen that “lecture-style” presentations were having little impact. “Talking to a large group wasn’t very effective, because in a group of around 20 people you’d only have maybe two or three really getting something from it,” he told FIFA World. “There were reminiscence therapy sessions taking place, where the therapists use a particular subject matter to try and bring back memories, but most of those worked better with women, because they focused on things like clothes and music. Often I found that the men would just switch off.” Photographic memories That all changed when White decided to take along his photographs, showing some of the teams and players that those men had cheered on many years before. “The response was incredible, and it still amazes me to this day,” he recalls. “We recently had an elderly gentleman from eastern Europe who we really struggled with at ﬁrst as he couldn’t speak much
English and was very withdrawn. Then we showed him a picture of Ferenc Puskás and suddenly his eyes just lit up! It turned out that he could reel off that entire Hungary team from one to 11! “We gradually found out that he had moved to Ipswich after the Hungarian uprising, so he also knew everything about the Ipswich team of that era. You could see how much he was enjoying and gaining from going back to those days, remembering names and other things about his life around that time. Experiences like that are extremely gratifying, and we invariably come away from the session having enjoyed it every bit as much as the patient.” With football so closely interwoven into the wider lives of its enthusiasts, White found that associated memories of people, rituals and places would often come ﬂooding back once a photograph had sparked initial recognition. It wasn’t a cure, of course, but tapping into lost memories through the beautiful game was providing moments of joy, and helping reconnect sufferers with loved ones and their own identity. As news of the project’s successes spread, interest soon grew in expanding it nationwide. After gaining the backing
of Alzheimer Scotland, the Football Reminiscence project also received support from the Scottish Football Association, who opened up Hampden Park’s Scottish Football Museum to the organisers. There, the stadium’s original turnstiles, as well as recreated terracing and dressing rooms – complete with the unmistakable scent of liniment oil – stirred yet more longforgotten memories. By this stage, Irene Grey was already one of the project’s most passionate advocates. Having brought Heart of Midlothian FC supporter Walter along to the Football Reminiscence group in Bo’ness more in hope than in expectation, she found that her feeling of hopelessness lifted considerably. “He loves his football, but it’s got to be the Hearts though!” she says with a smile. “I’d tried two or three other groups that hadn’t been for him, but Football Reminiscence has given him something to talk about, something to think about... a bit of life back. He’s a different person when he comes out. He’s animated and he’ll talk all the way home, and not necessarily about football. I know I can leave him there and that when I come back, he’s going to be in a happy mood. It lightens my day too.”
Reviving footballing memories is a gratifying experience both for the dementia sufferers and the project organisers.
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Scientiﬁc support As moving as Irene’s testimony is, the academic community – alerted to a swell of similar stories – were initially sceptical. Nonetheless, the sheer weight of anecdotal evidence convinced Glasgow Caledonian University to launch a year-long study. The results merely underlined that White had stumbled upon something spectacular, with the study’s ﬁnal report concluding that it left participants “more conﬁdent, calmer, more talkative within the group and, afterwards, more communicative with their spouses.” Professor Debbie Tolson, one of the report’s co-authors, freely admitted that it had been an eye-opening experience. “I’m actually not a football fan,” she told FIFA World, “so I wasn’t aware – although I certainly am now – of how important football is in people’s lives. To be honest, I was astonished. I don’t believe anything until I see the evidence, and what struck me as amazing was how people who were so withdrawn would suddenly shine.” Of course, the inevitable question raised by such successes is: why? What enables football to stir memories that other reminiscence therapies leave dormant? Tolson puts it down to the “spirit” of football. “Belonging to that spirit seems to pervade the psyche of these men,” she says. “From a very young age, it enables them to feel a sense of community and group identity, and forms part of their dreams for the future.” International ambitions Having won over the scientists in Scotland, the project organisers now want to spread the word to as many different countries as possible. In November, they helped set up a website (www.footballmemories. org.uk), on which players, celebrities and regular football fans have been able to contribute their own special football memories, with the aim of raising both funds and awareness for the work of Football Reminiscence.
Group meetings give participants a chance to share memories of days gone by.
“It was fantastic for us, both in terms of attracting volunteers and in generating interest in what we’re doing,” says White of the site, which attracted 14,000 unique visitors in its ﬁrst couple of months. “I think it’s also helped bridge a generation gap, because youngsters who might otherwise not have been interested in visiting a website about dementia were hooked in by the stories recounted by Zinédine Zidane or Noel Gallagher, and then found out more about the project from there.” White is now working alongside dementia expert Tony Jameson-Allen and Chris Wilkins, an entrepreneur with
experience in other charitable and social enterprises. As part of their mission to broaden the scope of the original project, they recently co-founded Sporting Memories Network – a community-interest venture which now plans to include other sports and combat other mental health issues, including memory loss, bereavement and social isolation. “We’re all very passionate about it,” Wilkins told FIFA World. “Everyone has seen the beneﬁts it has had with dementia sufferers in Scotland and there’s no doubt in my mind it can be just as effective elsewhere. For many of the people we’re targeting, there’s often a spiral of
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depression, so tapping into the person’s passion – whether that’s football or, in my case, motor sports – can be extremely powerful in arresting that.” Football will, of course, remain at the project’s heart, and White is currently working on a plan to introduce retro “Top Trumps”-style cards, with the aim of making the reminiscence project even more interactive. “Ideally, we’ll be looking for about ten players in each position per club,” he explains, “and that’s something we’ll be looking to involve supporters and local newspapers in. Then it will be down to the patients to make up their own minds about who was best.”
Amid all these innovative and exciting new plans, White is determined never to lose sight of the project’s roots, nor the reason why it has generated such interest. After all, it has been in providing a glimmer of light, however small, in the gloomy existence of dementia sufferers that Football Reminiscence has received such justiﬁable renown. “Dementia today is something that nearly everyone is affected by in some way, but it seems that no one wants to talk about it,” sums up White. “It’s like cancer was in the past in that respect. “Anything that can help people suffering from it is to be welcomed, and there’s a
consistency in the medical and scientiﬁc research that confirms we are doing something worthwhile. We see that ourselves every single day and, although this project is never going to be a miracle cure, it’s obvious how much pleasure it gives to the men involved and to their families and carers. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a massive achievement in itself.”
For more information on the Sporting Memories Network and Football Memories website, see the links on our webpage www.ﬁfa.com/ﬁfaworld.
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