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Football memories fighting Alzheimer’s

27th January 1950: Young football fans cheer outside the ground.
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It’s often said that football is in our blood. It is said so often, in fact, that the phrase has become trite, long ago entering the realm of the cliché.

At its heart, however, remains a fundamental truth that, for most supporters, football is central to our very identity. And as well as representing a lifelong passion in itself, the game becomes closely interwoven with our families, home towns, childhood dreams and much besides. None of this is news, of course. But in Scotland, a new way of harnessing this unique power has been unearthed, and is achieving spectacular results by breathing new life into Alzheimer’s sufferers.

A rapidly aging population has established this condition, which brings about a corrosive mental decline, as one the developed world’s most pressing health issues. Sufferers endure confusion, memory loss, mood swings, and are robbed of much that is familiar and dear to them, such as the names of loved ones and treasured recollections. Confidence is dented as a result, and a steady withdrawal from society invariably follows.

Where football enters the fight against Alzheimer's is in reviving some of those memories, with photos and memorabilia from patients’ favourite clubs used to reconnect them, for a while at least, to a lost personal history. This work is now known as the Football Reminiscence Project, but it began in 2009 when Michael White, the Falkirk Football Club historian, embarked on an experiment in hope rather than expectation.

As he told “I think a lot of people, probably myself included, felt it was too simple an idea to work as well as it does. Reminiscence therapy is nothing new in treating Alzheimer’s, but I noticed when I went in to do talks in care homes that, of a group of 20, you’d only have two or three really getting something from it. Most reminiscence therapy was also aimed more at women because it focused on things like clothes and music. I always felt football was the best way to reach men, but it’s been using photos from their era and favourite teams that’s really made a big impact.

“You’ll have someone come in - head down, seeming totally withdrawn - and then you’ll show him a picture and his face will just light up. I had one guy in our group recently who I showed a general shot of a Falkirk-Celtic game from the ‘50s. Immediately, he shouted: “That’s the match where Charlie Tully scored twice from a corner!” And he was right! That kind of thing happens in every group, and other memories will come back as a result. For ourselves and the carers, it’s incredible to see.”

He’s a different person when he comes out... It’s put new life into him, and you can see that with all the men there.

White’s experiment quickly spread, gaining the support of Alzheimer Scotland and the Scottish Football Association as it was rolled out nationwide. The Scottish Football Museum at Hampden Park became a focal point, with the sound of clicking turnstiles and scents of the museum’s restored dressing room capable of stirring a multitude of memories.

Stories of the fledgling project’s seemingly miraculous successes also alerted the academic community, and soon a team of cynical dementia researchers were attending sessions, analysing the facts behind an ever-increasing mass of anecdotal evidence. There was enough to justify a year-long study by Glasgow Caledonian University, and the results supported everything the sufferers’ families and carers had been raving about.

Its final report recounted stories of patients being moved to tears of joy, and went on to conclude that those attending the project were “more confident, calmer, more talkative within the group and, afterwards, more communicative with their spouses”.

One of the co-authors, professor Debbie Tolson, recalls how her initial scepticism was overcome. “I’m not actually a football fan, so I wasn’t aware – although I certainly am now – of how important football is in people's lives,” she told the BBC. “But our researchers went into the groups, spent many hours observing their impact and, 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.”

For Irene Gray, wife of one of the project’s beneficiaries, the university’s findings merely confirmed what she already knew. “He’s a different person when he comes out,” she said of her husband. “He’s animated and he’ll talk all the way home, and not necessarily about football. I know I can leave him there and, when I come back, he’s going to be in a happy mood. It lightens my day too. It’s been a Godsend. It’s put new life into him, and you can see that with all the men there.”

It’s not just the football, it’s everything surrounding it: the build-up to the game, who you go with, where you go for a pint beforehand, the banter you’ll have with your pals on a Monday morning.

So what is it about football that enables the game to connect with these men in ways that other, seemingly more significant elements of their lives seemingly can’t? “It’s so central to who we are, certainly in this country," is White's view. "And it’s not just the football, it’s everything surrounding it: the build-up to the game, who you go with, where you go for a pint beforehand, the banter you’ll have with your pals on a Monday morning. For so many people, it’s a massive part of their overall lives and their own identity.”

Given the project’s success, the next step will be to extend it beyond Scotland, and to those suffering from conditions other than Alzheimer’s who can benefit. Its message is also being spread through Alzheimer Scotland’s Football Memories website, which was launched recently with the aim of raising funds and awareness, not to mention accruing an unprecedented bank of fan recollections.

As the project’s Martin Greig explained: "Our aim is to make it the biggest collection of fans' memories ever collated. We have some great memories on the site from celebrities, authors, journalists and footballers - including Zinedine Zidane - to catch people's interest. But this is all about the fans. First and foremost, we want fans to browse the site and feel inspired to leave their favourite football memory. While doing so, it would be great if they read up about the life-changing work Alzheimer Scotland are doing in the Football Reminiscence groups. The site’s for every football fan around the world."

For White, the website serves a purpose of “bridging the gap between the people we’re treating, who’re clearly not the internet generation, and those who can carry this project forward”. And while the work of this devoted historian and his fellow volunteers can only be applauded, just as impressive is the fact that he derives as much pleasure from reminiscing as the patients.

“The most satisfying thing is the way their faces light up when you bring out the photos,” he said. “One of the men in my group, who played for Celtic just after the Second World War, passed away recently. But I always remember the last time I saw him. As he was taken out of the room in his wheelchair, he gave me a thumbs-up and shouted back: “Son, that was the best day of my life!” I thought then, you can keep all your university studies – that’s good enough for me.”

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