Stadiums reopening offers chance to reconnect for those living with dementia

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The opportunities for nostalgia and the sense of routine football provides are a big benefit to those living with dementia, and some are itching to return as soon as stadiums reopen.

The easing of coronavirus restrictions on Monday means up to 10,000 people will be allowed to attend larger seated outdoor sports venues in England.

Ryan Hollings is the health and wellbeing manager at the Aston Villa Foundation and works closely with those living with dementia, both those who are fans of the club and those who have no interest in football but access support and activity via the foundation’s dementia cafe.

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He told the PA news agency: “From the conversations I’ve had, when there is that opportunity to see people and go out again, they want to grab it with both hands.

“I know there has been a lot of reluctance amongst older people and people living with different health conditions still being comfortable in communal settings, but what we have found is that with the activities we’ve run, and the protocols we’ve put in place, that’s enabling people to feel comfortable.

“There is definitely a want, and a need, to get back. When the opportunity presents itself, there are a number of families who I am sure would be happy to be in amongst it if they’re able to get tickets for the Chelsea game (on May 23).”

Hollings attended a virtual workshop at the end of April set up as part of the Alzheimer’s Society’s ‘Sport United Against Dementia’ (SUAD) campaign.

The society is working to establish what a dementia-friendly club looks like.

Sam Scott, the society’s development manager, said: “It’s important to remember that people experience dementia in a variety of different ways and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to best supporting people.

“However, taking steps to increase your own understanding of dementia and how it can impact people is our best advice for helping those with the condition.”

Scott encouraged everyone to become a ‘Dementia Friend’, an initiative set up by the Alzheimer’s Society in 2013 to encourage a better understanding of the condition and to tackle the stigma around it.

Hollings said foundation staff had all become ‘Dementia Friends’ during the first lockdown last spring and that it was also being passed on to matchday staff such as stewards and ticket office employees.

He believes it is vital clubs like his support those living with dementia to maintain their lifelong passion.

“Having spoken to and worked with people with dementia over the last few years, what we have learned is that they don’t want to be segregated,” he said.

“If they have had a seat in the stands for 30 years then all of a sudden we put them with other people living with dementia, that can be really confusing. So what we’d like to do is put the measures in place so that they can stay in the seat that they’re in and make it as comfortable as possible.”

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On the importance of football for those he works with, he added: “It’s that nostalgia, and that sense of community and familiarity of doing something every week or every other week, sitting in the same seat and being surrounded by familiar faces, seeing the guys playing in claret and blue. Even though the players are different, it still gives that sense of ownership and something to look forward to.

“Some of those guys at our cafe who are Villa fans are still season ticket holders now and it’s part of their routine to go to Villa Park on a weekly basis. If you spoke to them about current players they might only be able to name two or three, whereas if you speak to them about players from the past, like the (1982) European Cup-winning team, they can name the whole squad and staff.”

The cafe was set up before the pandemic but operated virtually during the lockdowns and the foundation organised quizzes overseen by ex-Villa player and manager Brian Little, as well as an audience with current first-team boss Dean Smith.

Hollings said Smith, whose father Ron has dementia, is a “big advocate” of the work the foundation is doing.

Rebecca Forward’s dad Thomas was diagnosed with dementia in 2016. She recalls how going to watch Cardiff together from the early 1990s onwards became their “thing”, and that following Thomas’ diagnosis football became a way that she and her dad could still connect when she would visit him before the pandemic.

Rebecca Forward with her dad, Thomas Constable
Rebecca Forward with her dad, Thomas Constable (Handout from Rebecca Forward/PA)

“He was losing his ability to talk, he would really stutter over his words but he would try to finish the conversation,” Rebecca said.

“I tried not to finish his sentences for him, to let him get his point across. He would ask me ‘did you see that game last night?’ or ‘what about the Cardiff result?’ He would talk about anything to do with football. That kept him going, that stimulation to keep talking about the game he loved.”

Thomas died in September last year following a fall, and Rebecca believes the isolation of lockdown contributed to his deterioration.

“I would go and talk to him about football when we were allowed to visit him in hospital eventually, but he had deteriorated so much that he couldn’t take in what I was saying. It definitely sped up the deterioration in him,” she said.

Rebecca with her dad at her wedding in 2004
Rebecca with her dad at her wedding in 2004 (Handout from Rebecca Forward/PA)

Asked about whether she would go back to watch Cardiff when restrictions allowed, Rebecca said: “It was me and my dad’s thing. At the moment I’m struggling to think how I can go without him. Who am I going to talk to about it?

“I’m sure he would want me to go but it’s still all a bit raw. Maybe I will next season but at the moment I don’t think I could.”

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