Improving the lives of sufferers by using memories DEMENTIA AND BASEBALL

By Michael Ego

University of Connecticut

Dementia can be caused by a number of diseases, but the most common is Alzheimer’s, which affects 5.7 million people in the U.S. today.

There’s still a stigma attached to the disease; some fear that it’s contagious, while others are ashamed to admit that a friend or family member is quietly suffering. One of the most frustrating aspects of Alzheimer’s is that scientists haven’t figured out a direct cause, nor a cure.

Of course, any work toward finding a cure is incredibly important. But in the absence of one, I’ve always been struck by why, in the U.S., less attention is devoted to improving the quality of life for persons with dementia.

So a few years ago, I started to look outside of the U.S. to learn about how other countries are responding to Alzheimer’s in innovative ways. I found that sports – specifically, something called “sports reminiscence therapy” – is increasingly playing a role.

Sports reminiscence therapy falls under the umbrella of what are called “socialization programs,” in which people with dementia gather in a group setting and participate in activities with their peers.

Most current socialization programs incorporate some form of creative expression – music, storytelling, theater and dance – and past studies have demonstrated their effectiveness.

Because many with dementia have witnessed their usual outlets for self-expression gradually dissipate, these programs give them structured opportunities to tap into the brain’s creative network and socialize with caregivers, staff members and peers. Art gallery viewings and drama productions were also found to be valuable activities: Those who participated were generally happier and more social.

However, because two-thirds of those who have dementia are female, many of these socialization programs have traditionally been geared toward women.

For this reason, sports reminiscence therapy is starting to gain traction as a type of socialization program that could work particularly well for men with dementia.

After some of his friends were diagnosed with dementia, soccer historian Michael White launched a program in Scotland called Football Memories in 2009. The program offers people with dementia an opportunity to chat with other soccer fans in an informal and relaxed setting. Today there are hundreds of volunteers and participants, in addition to offshoot programs that center on golf, rugby, cricket and shinty.

The success of White’s program inspired a similar one across the Atlantic: baseball reminiscence therapy. The first launched in St. Louis in 2013; now, there are six across the country, including one implemented in early 2017 at the River House Adult Day Care Center in Cos Cob, Conn., where I’m currently overseeing a study to assess its benefits.

At the River House, people with dementia, caregivers and volunteers gather every two weeks. They might talk about where they were when they learned that Bobby Thompson hit the “Shot Heard Round the World,” or relive Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Sometimes they’ll watch old footage of games, or listen to radio broadcasts featuring legendary broadcasters Mel Allen and Red Barber.

Simply hearing others talk about a sport they love triggers enjoyable memories; by tapping into a shared passion, the participants become more engaged, and it seems to improve their self-esteem.

The activities don’t always involve watching videos or talking about the past. On March 22, participants showed up, sang “God Bless America” – and then played a game of wiffle ball in the center, with everyone getting a turn at bat.

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