CLEMSON, South Carolina — Researchers from Clemson University are using football to battle the persistent damage brought on by dementia. Faculty and graduate student researchers are studying the effectiveness of a reminiscence therapy program that uses memories associated with Clemson football to address many of the debilitating effects of dementia.

The program uses football history, footage and memorabilia to provide a multisensory intervention for memory decline.

The research team from Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department recently concluded the program at Brookdale Senior Living Solutions in Central, South Carolina, where they tested the program with several of the facility’s residents. Brent Hawkins, assistant professor of recreational therapy, said the program represents a rare approach combining reminiscence therapy with sports.

Clemson faculty member Brent Hawkins watches as a Brookdale resident rubs a replica of Howard's Rock.

Clemson faculty member Brent Hawkins watches as a Brookdale resident rubs a replica of Howard’s Rock.
Image Credit: Clemson University

“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 said. “This type of therapy is common in recreational therapy, but it’s rarely paired with sports.”

Hawkins credits the original idea for the research project to Gregory Ramshaw, associate professor in Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department. Ramshaw’s research interests include sport-based heritage and tourism, and he had encountered similar 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 the program. 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 hone in on the best ways to deliver it.

“There’s an entire industry based around sports heritage and nostalgia,” Ramshaw said. “These memories are collective, especially in a community and college atmosphere like Clemson’s. It made sense that even if residents weren’t diehard fans, the odds would be good that they would have a tangential relationship to those Saturdays every year.”

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As a group of residents assembles for the football reminiscence program, family members and researchers aid them in donning Clemson gear.
Image Credit: Clemson University

Using sport to navigate memory

The research team, which also includes recreational therapy graduate students Taylor Hooker and Katie Walker, arrived for its first session at Brookdale in late October. After the first session, the core group of eight participants more than doubled, not including family members who opted to come and join their relatives during sessions.

This wasn’t a normal activity for residents, and word got around fast.

Residents enthusiastically arrived to sessions on Memorial Stadium and topics such as tailgating and Clemson football traditions. They donned cloth helmets, held footballs in their laps and put on as much orange as possible. Even self-proclaimed Georgia fans got into the mix, and those who could stand or rise with the assistance of walkers joined Hawkins in Clemson’s cheer in cadence count.

The residents quickly established traditions of their own. One talented resident insisted on beginning each session by leading the group with patriotic music that she would deliver via harmonica. Mini cornhole tournaments became a necessity to close out each session.

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Taylor Hooker walks among the residents showing copies of old Clemson football programs.
Image Credit: Clemson University

Hooker and Walker led sessions with residents based on the protocols developed by the research team. Clemson Athletics and the university’s special collections archives collected everything from football programs and ticket stubs to replicas of Howard’s Rock so the residents were always presented with materials that were authentic and uniquely Clemson.

The researchers quickly found that residents were less inclined to discuss specific games or game-related activities. They instead used these topics as launching pads to memories of social experiences that existed in Clemson football’s orbit.

Hooker recalls passing around a panoramic photo of Bowman field where the team played its early games expecting residents to discuss the field and perhaps Memorial Stadium. Instead, a resident focused on Tillman Hall in the background and told a story about taking a home economics class there and preparing cookies for football players. She also talked about how Clemson cadets were highly sought after for dates.

“We prioritized connecting with the residents over getting through every part of the protocol,” Hooker said. “The most engaging sessions were the ones where residents personalized topics and talked about their life around sports, so we only encouraged the connections they were making.”

Gaining fans

Taylor Yeomans, resident program coordinator at Brookdale, said roughly 80 percent of its residents have dementia or Alzheimer’s. She was initially skeptical that the sports-centric intervention could be as effective as other activities programs at the facility.

Yeomans saw the effects of the program firsthand over the course of six sessions. She said one resident with cognitive issues that makes it difficult for them to speak and put thoughts together frequently told stories in the sessions that everyone could understand. Some residents even waved off physical therapists or delayed lunch so they could stay longer to play cornhole or discuss a session topic further.

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Katie Walker shows a photo of Howard’s Rock to a Brookdale resident.
Image Credit: Clemson University

“The second Taylor or Katie walked in the door the residents were chasing them down the hall,” Yeoman said, laughing. “I usually have to bring residents to programs, but many were arriving 45 minutes early; residents and their family members were excited for it.”

June Harden is one such family member; her mother has been a resident at Brookdale for close to two years and is experiencing the beginning stages of dementia. Harden said the effect of the program on her mother and the other residents was so apparent she decided to join in on the experience. She was impressed with how the researchers challenged the residents, but never to the point of frustration.

Harden said she believes her mother and the other residents responded to the program because it was mental exercise disguised as a fun program with varied activities. Harden ended up learning a great deal about Clemson history from when she was a child and she said it set the stage for bonding activities with her mother in a way that normal visiting could not.

“My mother taught nursing students; she was a genius, so it can be difficult to see her as she is now,” Harden said, “but while the program was going on I knew it was something we could do together that would be fun. It didn’t just push her to remember things, it pushed us to remember things we’ve shared together. I call her every night and there wasn’t a single night that she didn’t talk about it.”

Beyond Brookdale, Clemson and football

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Even residents who required assistance standing closed out most sessions with mini cornhole tournaments.
Image Credit: Clemson University

Ramshaw described the atmosphere during the last session as bittersweet. One resident made a point to ask how he or the other residents could keep the program going. Others pointed out how much they would treasure the T-shirts and artifacts that the research team gave them, and the materials remain available at Brookdale so its staff can continue the program.

Ramshaw said the researchers hope to do what they did for Brookdale on a larger scale. By analyzing data and making necessary adjustments to the protocols, they want to make a program like this possible for other teams and other sports in other areas of the country. The feedback they’ve received so far is encouraging and the researchers hope to better define how sports can be used as an entry point to promote health in people experiencing mental decline.

“The topics covered in reminiscence therapy allow you to meet people where they are,” Hawkins said. “In this case, holding a football or shaking a pom pom are initiators of memories, so it’s great to see that we were then able to help people find the memories as they went along.”