Meet the sport loving social entrepreneurs tackling dementia

Meet the sport loving social entrepreneurs tackling dementia

‘Loneliness is a horrible thing,’ says Tony Jameson-Allen, founder of Sporting Memories. ‘It can strike even the most confident person: through ill health, bereavement, or friends moving away.’

Tony, and co-founder Chris Wilkins, setup Sporting Memories to fight loneliness. They use sports’ powerful stories to tackle the effects of dementia, depression and loneliness. While not their only focus, Tony and Chris use these resources to help older people. They set up groups that allow people to meet and talk about sport, alleviating loneliness. The reminiscence sessions help people living with dementia, depression and helps to bring together older people who share a common love of sport.

‘There are so many different levels to being a sports fan,’ Tony explains, ‘If you’re a football fan, you might support a particular team. You can talk about what your pre-match routine was: did you go to the pub beforehand? Did you meet friends? Did you check the results in the sports paper? We can use these different resources to stimulate and trigger conversation.’

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Helping Older People

‘Dementia is a really cruel illness, it can strip people of their identities,’ says Tony, ‘By using reminiscence we can help people revisit their stories. They’re not an 85 year old guy with dementia; they’re a person who has been a successful sports star. We can give them their identity and confidence back. We give their carers and relatives the tools to celebrate their histories and achievements.’

These sessions can often uncover some incredible stories. Tony shared the story of one care home who found a couple of sports stars in their midst.

‘We had a care home who took a 97 year old lady living with dementia, who they discovered had been a competitive ice dancer. They took her out of the care home, back to the local ice rink, with an adapted sled. She was taken into the centre with ice skates on and felt the sensation of being on the ice for the first time in years.

The home embarked on looking at the sporting histories of each of the residents. They not only recorded them but helped them revisit sports they’re passionate about.

One gentleman from the home revisited the football ground that he once played at and trained at. The club provided free tickets so that he could go and start watching matches again. The staff discovered what his nickname used to be when he was a speedy winger – and he insisted all the staff start calling him Twinkletoes!’

Bringing together communities

As well as helping the person living with dementia, reminiscence therapy has a big impact on the people around them. It reminds their carers, family and community the life the person has lived. Tony is eager to stress how important it is to challenge some of the perceptions of age we carry as a society.

‘We should be celebrating that people are living longer,’ he explains, ‘That’s a massive achievement. But the narrative in the media and society as a whole is that older people are a burden and a drain on our resources.’

Tony tackles this by organising sessions that involve other members of the community. They’re currently running a project aiming to unite generations through sport.

‘We train younger people in all the techniques of sports reminiscence. We train them to interview older people and run community events bringing together older people and sports stars.’

The work brings generations together; the older people interact with the community and the young people learn skills.

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Setting up Sporting Memories

Tony and Chris both have a background in health and social care. Tony is a former caddy on the European Golf Tour who, after getting married and deciding he needed a ‘proper job’, trained as a psychiatric nurse. He worked for ten years in older people’s’ mental health services before moving into service improvement and policy. He met Chris while working at the Department for Health.

‘Chris is similarly a huge sports enthusiast,’ he says, ‘We sprung up a good friendship. He has an entrepreneurial background and was developing digital tools to enable people to live well with dementia.’

After his job was cut Tony got together with Chris to tackle loneliness through social entrepreneurship. They decided to create something that would combine their love of sport with their passion for helping older people. They founded Sporting Memories in November, 2011.

Tony describes the first year a bit of a struggle. It took half a year for the work to get starter meaning the first year’s turnover was £32,000. Finding it tough to get funding they partnered with researchers to prove the need.

‘A lot of planning went into Sporting Memories, and we worked furiously hard with academics to gather the evidence base,’ he explains. ‘It helped us get a grant from Skills to Care which gave us an opportunity to start talking about what we were going to do.

Securing that first grant quickly led to others.

‘Councils, public health teams and commissioning groups started approaching us,’ Tony says. ‘They wanted us to develop projects to reach older men, who in terms of ill health are a high risk group.’

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Growing the idea

Suddenly Tony and Chris were attracting grant funding and had a line of potential partners queueing up to work with them. They’d started getting national recognition, including winning an award for Best Community Football Scheme beating several Premier League clubs.

It was clear to them that they had to grow beyond their team of two. They applied to UnLtd for a Fast Growth Award to help them scale and meet the opportunities coming their way.

‘Last year we started off with two of us, we’ve now got a staff team of 12,’ explains Tony, ‘Growing quickly sets challenges though. We need to ensure the people we recruit share the same values and vision that we have. We need them to believe in our approach and ensure our core focus is improving the physical and mental health of older people.’

As they’ve grown Tony and Chris have found that what they’re creating is bigger than they thought. They’ve met social entrepreneurs that have challenged them to rethink what they can achieve.

‘We thought we were creating a project and an idea,’ explains Tony, ‘What we’ve realised is we are creating a social movement. We’ve met fantastic social entrepreneurs doing the same, tackling the biggest challenges. They need to be nurtured and supported. I’d like to see social entrepreneurs being celebrated for changing attitudes, connecting communities and creating social movements.’

Where next?

Tony and Chris have ambitious plans for the future. They have just won funding to establish 64 weekly groups across the country and have partnered with the FA and National Football Museum to create Memories of 66. It’s clear that whatever they do next they’re proud of everything they’ve achieved so far.

‘We’ve seen lots of joy and lots of happiness,’ says Tony, ‘What’s been most uplifting is seeing older people connecting and making friendships. That is really, really valuable.’

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