Health: How men with memory problems are game for reminiscing about sport

TEAM SPIRIT: Bill Corbett, right, looks at photographs of his footballing days with Michael White.

TEAM SPIRIT: Bill Corbett, right, looks at photographs of his footballing days with Michael White.

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As the population ages, more and more people suffer from dementia or memory problems. Katie Baldwin reports on an innovative new scheme using sport to tackle the issue.

He could not remember what he had for breakfast, but Bill Corbett’s recollection of events of more than 50 years ago was amazing.

It was reminiscing about his amazing football career that unlocked the vivid memories.

“The clarity was unbelievable,” said Michael White, director of Sporting Memories Network.

“From his trip to Wembley he described the weather, the route they took, penalty kicks.

“This was a guy with a diagnosis of dementia. He was a lovely chap and his face just lit up when we showed him the old pictures.”

Bill was among a group of men with dementia who Michael had been asked to go and talk to.

From a throwaway comment that one of the group made about Bill being a good player in his day, Michael found out he was William Corbett, a former professional who had played for Celtic, Preston, Leicester, Dunfermline and Scotland.

One of the highlights was turning out for Scotland against England at Wembley in October 1942.

Michael managed to find a newspaper report of the match which said that no Scottish player had ever marked famed English star Tommy Lawton so effectively.

“When we read that out to him, his eyes welled up with pride and you could see him sit up in his chair,” Michael said.

Bill was taking part in football reminiscence sessions being run at his Scottish care home.

Reminiscence has been used for some time with older people with dementia and memory loss.

The nature of the disease means that while their short-term recollection can be badly affected, memories from years ago are often very clear.

Experts know that using the technique can be beneficial in improving self-esteem, boosting interpersonal skills and just piquing their interest.

But previously reminiscence had not always worked so well with men as they weren’t always so interested in the topics of conversation.

Social enterprise Sporting Memories Network was born when Michael discovered that talking to older men about football often prompted them to become very involved and animated.

This led to the development of the Football Reminiscence Project in Scotland, which is now run by the Sporting Memories Network (SMN).

Now the same concept is coming to Leeds, in a first for England.

From this month training will start for staff, volunteers and relatives linked to 15 care homes to show them how to run sessions.

They will use archive photographs, memorabilia and reports from all sports to spark memories and discussions in older people.

Another valuable asset will be memories from sporting stars from across the city, as well as spare sports annuals that people may have gathering dust at home.

Michael’s colleague at SMN Tony Jameson-Allen has collected hundreds of memories from sportspeople from every field which are available on the scheme’s website.

Some are from those involved with the city’s major teams including Leeds United, Leeds Rhinos, Leeds Carnegie and Yorkshire County Cricket Club.

At a launch event, Lucy Young from the Leeds Rugby Foundation said they jumped at the chance to be involved.

“If we can support the project, we are absolutely delighted to do it, because we know it will make a difference to the people they are going to be working with.”

Funding for the project in Leeds has come from workforce organisation Skills for Care, whose CEO Sharon Allen said it was exactly the sort of innovative project their Workforce Development Innovation Fund was set up to support.

“There’s no doubt introducing sports-based reminiscence activities will have a real impact for those organisations taking part,” she added.

The scheme has also won the backing of Leeds City Council, whose chief executive, Tom Riordan, said: “I think this is a fantastic, innovative project and it’s one which is going to have a real impact, not just in Leeds but more widely.

“Sport is such a great part of lives, especially for men, and that’s why I think it’s going to be such a huge success.”

Care homes themselves have also welcomed being able to introduce the scheme.

John Allott, lead for dementia at Leeds Care Association, said: “It’s something we are going to welcome with great enthusiasm and excitement to enhance the lives of those we care for.”

The directors of Sporting Memories Network, Michael White, Chris Wilkins and Tony Jameson-Allen, said their aims were to improve lives – as Bill Corbett’s was by being able to talk about his past.

Michael added: “Bill’s story was discovered by accident and since then we have discovered more and more.

“There are thousands of Bills out there, men who are staring at wallpaper or sitting in front of TV sets who have a story to tell.

“The task of all of us who work in this field is to go out and capture those stories and help people now, and for generations in the future.”

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