How football can spur reconnections for people with dementia


Gary Mabbutt, the former Tottenham Hotspur club captain and England player, looked thoughtful. “A Spurs player with a name starting with Q? Barbara, can you think of anyone?” Barbara Greensmith hesitated, her arms and legs convulsing under the table.

Mabbutt turned to Hirok Moitra, sitting on his other side. “Hirok, any ideas?” Moitra sat expressionless and immobile, staring into the middle distance. There was a long silence. Then Moitra suddenly announced, “Andy Quy.”

Moitra’s daughter, Rebecca, gasped with surprise: “He can’t necessarily remember what happened last week but that’s a memory from two decades ago.” She beamed with pride: “Well done, dad!”

Gary Mabbutt looking through football memorabilia at a workshop for people from Tottenham living with dementia.



Gary Mabbutt looks through football memorabilia at a workshop for people from Tottenham living with dementia. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

It is moments like these that make the dementia workshop held by the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation, the football club’s charitable arm, in partnership with Sporting Memories Foundation, worthwhile for all involved.

“My parents were both diagnosed with dementia,” Mabbutt said later. “The club does so much work with youngsters but people are getting older and it’s our responsibility to help them too.

“I know from my personal experience how important it is to keep the brains alert of those living with dementia,” he said. “Sport is so important to so many people and can trigger all sorts of memories. It can bring the generations together too.”

There is now widespread agreement that the beautiful game can be good for one’s mind as well as one’s body. “For people in old age and dealing with dementia, rewatching matches can rekindle past memories, connect people with their past and keep the brain active,” said NHS England’s clinical director for dementia, Alistair Burns.

Participants at the dementia workshop design a Spurs dream team.



Participants at the dementia workshop design a Spurs dream team. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

“The power of sport can stimulate emotion which can be revived many years after the event,” he added. “Emotional memory, which is one of two main types of memory in the human brain, can be more powerful than memory for personal events, so as people in later life relive exciting or tense moments, this can stimulate memories, potentially strengthening brain activity.”

Amanda White, the London coordinator of the Sporting Memories Foundation, agreed: “People who can’t remember what they did yesterday will suddenly remember the first football match they were taken to, then they’ll remember something else about their parents. Or they’ll remember taking their own children to a match for the first time, and that will trigger another memory,” she said. “It’s not only great for them but for their families too, who can reconnect with their parent through these memories and enthusiasms.”

At the Spurs event in Percy House, the home of the club’s foundation in north London, Barbara and Hirok pore over a table of Spurs memorabilia, including the FA Cup Spurs won in 1991 under Mabbutt’s captaincy, old books and original football cartoons.

Mabbutt has also brought along two football shirts, one worn by him in the first match in South Africa at which black players were allowed to wear their country’s shirt. This triggers a short conversation about racism and politics.

“It’s amazing what comes out of these football-themed games and discussions,” said White. “One workshop led to a discussion about the suffragette movement because the conversation moved from football to horse racing to Emily Davison.”

Some of the Spurs memorabilia available at the dementia workshop at the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation.



Some of the Spurs memorabilia available at the dementia workshop at the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Sporting Memories works with clubs across the UK. Tony Jameson-Allen, a qualified mental health nurse and manager of a number of long-term dementia care facilities, is co-founder of the charity.

“Be it Kenneth Wolstenholme’s iconic commentary as Sir Geoff Hurst scored his [1966 World Cup] hat-trick, Nobby Stiles doing a jig of delight or Bobby Moore being hoisted on to the team’s shoulders holding aloft the Jules Rimet trophy, these great moments can bring back wonderful, positive memories that can be used to unite generations to tackle three of the biggest challenges facing an ageing population: dementia, depression and loneliness,” he said.

“Sport unites communities and generations, it stirs the soul and can reawaken powerful emotions. Every week we witness the positive impact recalling golden moments of great sporting moments has on the physical and mental wellbeing of our group members, many of whom live with dementia.”

The Alzheimer’s Society is supportive of the charity’s work. The society’s programme partnerships project manager, Emma Bould, said: “Football clubs like Tottenham are for many at the heart of our communities, bringing people together from all walks of life. While these reminiscence sessions can’t turn back dementia, they do turn back the clock helping people with dementia stay connected – as old sporting memories can.

“It’s great to see shared experiences like these helping people be better included in society,” she added. “Sadly, too many people with dementia feel isolated and abandoned but we can all take action to improve this. Our Dementia Friendly Sport and Physical Activity Guide can help sports associations ensure people with dementia can join others in following their favourite team to enjoy the beautiful game.”



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