The charity where football helps tackle dementia, depression and loneliness

Following his dementia diagnosis, Bill attended a day centre close to his home in Falkirk.

He kept himself to himself, preferring to sit at the side of the room and skim through his newspaper, rather than taking part in group activities. Though fondly thought of by those who attended and ran the sessions, very little was known about Bill.

The turning point came when, one day, he was shown a selection of old photographs of Scottish football. Taken in the 1940s and 1950s, it came as a surprise when Bill - in his late eighties and suffering from severe dementia by this stage - began to name all the players featured in the images.

This was just the start.

Building on their breakthrough, the session leaders attempted to find other resources to help stimulate Bill’s memories. As well as pictures, he was shown match programmes and reports from newspapers. He was even able to watch old footage of matches.

Over time, Bill was able to reveal a playing career in which he represented Celtic, Preston North End and West Ham. It was also discovered that, during World War II, he played for Scotland as they drew 0-0 with England in front of a 75,000-strong crowd at Wembley. Only 20 years old at the time, Bill lined up alongside Matt Busby and Bill Shankly in the Scottish defence, earning praise for an accomplished performance against the likes of Tommy Lawton and Stanley Matthews.

Bill Corbett died in 2011. He was 88. His story remains an example for Sporting Memories, the then newly-founded charity that helped him rediscover his identity in the final months of his life.

“It was very early days for us as a charity,” Tony Jameson-Allen, co-founder and director, tells JOE. “It’s probably the most incredible case study we’ll ever come across.

“Bill went from being this quiet little chap who attended a day centre to remembering who he really was. It meant so much to him, he ended up describing the sessions as the happiest time in his life. Everything had started to make sense to him again.”

Prior to forming Sporting Memories, co-founders Jameson-Allen and Chris Wilkins were acutely aware of the lack of meaningful activities available to elderly men.

“There were studies which suggested a lot of the grants that were given out to older people’s organisations were helping to provide groups and activities that attracted 80 to 90% females,” Jameson-Allen explains. “Bingo, sing-alongs and knitting - they’re all worthy activities but they’re not necessarily appealing to older men.”

In their quest to improve the lives of older people living with dementia and other long-term mental and physical conditions, sport - particularly football - was seen as a popular topic to draw upon in order to appeal to more men.

“It’s a subject men are comfortable talking about. It’s a default conversation when you’re in the pub. You don’t talk about feelings or health; you talk about sport and you talk about football.” 

After extensive background research and the securing of funding which helped them provide basic resources, Sporting Memories began their work in early 2011. Providing accessible, inclusive sessions, they sought to encourage attendees to reminisce about their experiences of playing or watching sport in their younger years. As well as helping them remain socially integrated and cognitively stimulated it was also hoped that, in some cases, it would provide a gateway to becoming more physically active.

“There isn’t necessarily a way of staving off conditions such as dementia but there are ways of possibly delaying it or reducing the risk of developing it,” Jameson-Allen adds. 

“That includes things such as having a healthy diet, but also staying connected and remaining involved in physical activity. Our clubs provide a platform for people to do that.”

Eight years since its formation, Sporting Memories has grown steadily. By their own admission they remain a small organisation relying heavily on volunteers, but they now operate 116 clubs across the UK on a weekly basis - not including various work they carry out with care homes and hospitals across the country. All of the sessions are free, and anyone aged 50 and over can attend.

Typically, each club runs for around 90 minutes, broken up by a half-time interval.

“We’ll have the reminiscence element first,” Jameson-Allen explains. “Amongst other things, we’ll use things like memory cards, spot the ball and the football pink during the first half. 

“We often serve pie and bovril at half-time, then we’ll give people the chance to participate in the physical activities afterwards. Sometimes it’s bowls, at other clubs it might be boccia or indoor archery.

“There’s even a walking football club in Salford now because of one of our clubs. We’re getting people to come alive again through a love of sport, a love of football. Through these sessions we hear so many positive stories of how these groups change people’s lives.”

One of Sporting Memories’ weekly groups takes place in the Sir Tom Finney suite at the Lancashire FA’s headquarters in Leyland, near Preston.

Steve Elliott, once signed by Brian Clough for Nottingham Forest before later representing Preston North End, attends the club regularly with his wife, Mags. He is now living with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease.

“Having this means a lot to both of us.” Mags told JOE during one of the group’s meetings.

“Steve was diagnosed at the start of last year, but there was obviously a lot of buildup before that diagnosis was eventually confirmed. He’s lost a lot of confidence during that time. He won’t go out on his own now, for example.

“When it comes to Monday, though, he’s up early and ready to come here. He really looks forward to it and he comes back to life the moment he walks through the door.”

As Mags speaks, Steve is yards away taking on some of the other group members at indoor bowls. Across the room, a table tennis match is in full flow.

“We had a session on table tennis a few weeks back where Don Parker and his partner Jill - both former Commonwealth champions - came in and talked about their experiences,” explains Keith McIntosh, the group’s coordinator.

“One of our guys, who used to play football here when he was a youngster, is living with dementia. Normally he’ll just sit here in silence with his arms folded, but suddenly, when he was asked to start playing, he became animated and started talking. That’s what it’s all about.”

Elsewhere in the room, various sporting memorabilia has been laid out on a table. Some of the items have been donated, others brought in by group members to discuss during the earlier part of the session. Today’s guest speaker is comedian and former member of the Houghton Weavers, Norman Prince, who talked about his own memories of supporting Bolton Wanderers.

“There’s a lot of laughter in this room every week - not just because we’ve had Norman in today,” adds McIntosh. “People come here because they enjoy it and friendships have been formed through this group. Given that we’re trying to combat loneliness and depression and not just dementia, that’s really important.”

The work of Sporting Memories has received plenty of recognition - most notably in Alan Shearer’s 2017 BBC documentary Football, Dementia and Me - but Jameson-Allen stresses that is by no means their only focus. 

“For older people, loneliness has a massive impact on their physical health as well as their mental health. The Chief Medical Officer in 2015 stated that loneliness has the same impact on physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s massive. It shortens life and it’s a killer.

“We want to make a difference with issues such as that, and that’s why we encourage people to attend who have no health issues whatsoever. They might just be big sports fans who don’t have much going on in their lives, and that’s absolutely fine.”

Jameson-Allen is understandably proud of how far Sporting Memories has come in its eight years of existence. But while there is plenty of evidence that their work is making a significant difference, there is also a sense of frustration that more funding and resources are not readily available to accelerate the charity’s growth.

“We see how much people get out of these sessions,” he says. “Not just those who attend, but their families, too. We’re very grateful for the various grants and donations we’ve received to help take us this far, but we can’t help but wonder how much more we could do if even a tiny fraction of the money that’s pouring into football nowadays was made available to us.”

The charity want to expand so that they can provide at least 300 clubs in the UK - a figure they estimate will provide adequate coverage and support. Securing more volunteers to help run these additional sessions is just as important as accessing additional funding.

Balancing growth with ensuring their existing groups are provided with the materials they require, discussions have also been held about taking Sporting Memories beyond the UK.

“The world has an ageing population and sport is a global phenomenon,” Jameson-Allen adds. “We know what we do works anywhere and that it can help people in the far corners of the planet, not just in this country. It’s exciting to see how far we can go.”

For more information about Sporting Memories Foundation and how to become a volunteer click here