By Michael Staton
Photography by Ashley Jones
Researchers use football memories to address debilitating effects of dementia.
The team huddles, gathering strength for the battle ahead. They face no ordinary opponent today, but then again, they are no ordinary players.
For most activities, the residents don’t arrive on time — if at all. But today they are early. One of the most active members makes it a point to leave extra early to get to the common area where the activity takes place. She makes good time with her walker, but she leaves no room for error.
“I’m the one who kicks things off, so I’ve got to beat everybody here,” she says.
This resident of Brookdale Senior Living Solutions and her harmonica are essential parts of this team. A Clemson student more than half a century her junior greets her and helps her into an orange T-shirt as the rest of her team rolls or walks into the common area to join her.
Like the team they came to discuss, they suit up, pulling on orange shirts and orange cloth helmets, grab their footballs and huddle up. They’ve gathered with Clemson faculty and students as well as their fellow Brookdale residents and family members who have come to share tales of gridiron glory, famous coaches and players, and established Clemson traditions. This is their final session, and it stands out because participants will end it by rubbing a replica of Howard’s Rock, a tradition known to every Clemson fan.
With harmonica in hand, the early bird leads the group through a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This is followed by Clemson’s cadence count led by Brent Hawkins, assistant professor of recreational therapy. The residents of Brookdale in Central, South Carolina, quickly established these traditions with a sense of joy rarely seen in their other activities. Hawkins says these opening performances have only grown louder with each session.
35–40% of Brookdale’s residents have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. It’s important for them to stay as active and engaged as possible.
“This small group makes a big noise,” Hawkins says. “We love it; it’s an encouraging sign because they’re facing something they have little hope of beating.”
The opponent faced by this senior living team is cruel, indiscriminate and unforgiving. The only victory comes in slowing it down, getting up every day and taking on the fight. Considering 35–40 percent of Brookdale’s residents have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, it’s important for them to stay as active and engaged as possible.
Faculty and student researchers from Clemson University are using these innovative sessions to study the effectiveness of a reminiscence therapy program designed to address the debilitating effects of dementia. The program uses football history, game footage and memorabilia to provide a multisensory intervention for memory decline.
The response from residents, facility staff and family caregivers has been overwhelmingly positive. In addition, the research data showed that the positive effects didn’t end when the sessions were over. According to researchers, this novel approach to memory care, while thoroughly tested in Clemson’s backyard, shows that its impact doesn’t have to be limited to the small area around Memorial Stadium.
AN UNLIKELY TEAM-UP
“Reminiscence therapy is one of the best ways to help people recall things; a smell from cooking or lyrics from a favorite song can bring back memories from decades ago,” Hawkins says. “This type of therapy is common in recreational therapy, but it’s rarely paired with sports.”
For the research team from Clemson’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management, the program that ended with the activities at the Brookdale facility in November 2017 represented a rare opportunity to test the combination of reminiscence therapy with sports.
Hawkins credits Gregory Ramshaw, associate professor in parks, recreation and tourism management, with the original idea for the research project. Ramshaw’s research interests include sport-based heritage and tourism, and he had encountered similar therapy programs, including the Sporting Memories Network in the United Kingdom and a St. Louis Cardinals program that takes older adults for stadium tours.
These programs provided good leads for materials the researchers could use, but they lacked protocols to reliably and effectively deliver and assess this particular therapeutic approach. Hawkins and Ramshaw decided to apply for a grant through the Robert H. Brooks Sports Science Institute at Clemson that would allow them to explore the effectiveness of such a program and zero in on the best ways to deliver it.
“There’s an entire industry based around sports heritage and nostalgia,” Ramshaw says. “These memories are collective, especially in a community and college atmosphere like Clemson’s. It made sense that even if residents weren’t die-hard fans, the odds would be good that they would have a tangential relationship to those Saturdays every year.”
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