Football vs Dementia

Tomi Juric’s goal in the 2014 ACL Final. The 3 glorious injury time minutes in the 1999 Champions League Final. John Aloisi’s penalty against Uruguay in 2005. James Troisi’s goal that won the 2015 Asian Cup. These are the football memories that will stay with me.

However, it isn’t so much the memory that appealed to me. It’s the memory of the feeling I felt at that moment. It’s the passionate emotion that I experience whenever I recall them. It brings me to life. This emotion, and many others, becomes lost when that memory is forgotten. For people with Dementia, new memories and the recollection of the passionate emotions felt at that recent moment, become lost.

Dementia – of which Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60%-70% of cases of Dementia – is a collection of cruel diseases. Symptoms of the diseases not only consist of progressive and frequent memory loss, but also many other symptoms. Other symptoms include: confusion, an increased inability to perform everyday tasks, a deterioration of social skills, apathy and withdrawal. As a result of a number of symptoms, sufferers feel out of their element in conversations, at events, basically every situation that is not a part of their everyday routine.

For someone with Dementia, living by a structured and simplified routine is vastly important. Anything out of that routine feels similar to the first moments of a party. A party where one knows not a single person, let alone anything about them. As this disease is incurable, in the mid to late stages, quality of life is tantamount. This is where football comes in.

In 2014, a study by the Autonomous University of Barcelona found that talking about football helped to stimulate the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease who have an interest in the game. In the wake of this research, programs were established in a number of countries aimed at improving sufferers quality of life through football. Such examples include the Spanish based Fùtbol vs Alzheimer and the Scottish based Football Memories. The 2 programs are different in their approaches, but are similar in that they aim to improve the quality of life for people with the many types of Dementia.

In cooperation with the Autonomous University of Barcelona and Madrid based Libero, the Spanish Fùtbol vs Alzheimer program has created 4 different football specific magazines to be utilised in therapy. These 4 magazines, each edition with football content from a different decade, include not only famous footballers and articles from each era; but also therapeutic exercises designed to stimulate the attention, memory and, perhaps most importantly, the mood of those who read them. The program aims to distribute them to as many care centres in Barcelona as possible. As you will see in the touching video in the link below, it’s hard to argue that they do not improve the mood of those reading them.

The Scottish based program Football Memories educates volunteers to visit people with Dementia to talk football, using images and memorabilia to stimulate their football memories. Not just any football, but the club and era of football that the person with dementia remembers fondly. An era that they feel comfortable about discussing regardless of their social anxiety. Because they remember the moment. They remember how they felt when it happened. And hopefully, some of that emotion is experienced again.

In addition to volunteers visiting and talking to people with Dementia, the Scottish program have a section of their website where anyone can add their own football memories. Memories from the perspective of a fan, a journalist, a celebrity, even the perspective of a professional footballer – Graeme Souness and Zinedine Zidane have both kindly shared their favourite memories. These memories are there for a person with Dementia with an interest in football to read. For anyone to read and to share with their loved ones. Loved ones who might have forgotten their child’s name, can share their love of football with them. In that sense, it can be just as valuable to a person’s with Dementia family.

As someone who has watched a loved one go through the cruel stages of Dementia, I can vouch for the invaluable experience it is to watch that loved one come to life for a short moment. In my experience, it was an old song being played by a live band that brought them to life. It was as if they were back to the person I had known prior to their illness. It was a wonderful moment for both of us. One that will stay me.

As in my own example, the catalyst does not have to be football. However, for anyone that is interested in football knows, the game can make you experience emotions that are hard to replicate. As the Lead Researcher Dr Laura Coll says in the touching video in the link below: “Alzheimers [dementia] destroys memory skills, but does not destroy the passion for football or [its] emotions”. If that passion can be experienced again by a person with Dementia; football has improved their quality of life.

For more information on the programs, see the links below.

A short video on Fùtbol vs Alzheimer

Football Memories website