As Alzheimer’s Society is confirmed as The FA’s official charity partner, Tommy Dunne, who lives with dementia, tells his story. From helping him through the shock of diagnosis to bringing him into a community, Tommy shares how the power of football can make a difference to those affected by dementia.
The Football Association (FA) partnership with Alzheimer’s Society will give us a prominent platform to use the power of football as a force for good to change lives for the better in the football community.
There are 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK, which could fill Wembley Stadium 10 times over – and they have never needed our help more, having been worst hit by coronavirus.
Tommy Dunne, a lifelong Everton fan and avid supporter of Alzheimer's Society, shares how football has helped him overcome his biggest challenges.
Tommy's dementia story
I’m so delighted to see The FA partner up with Alzheimer’s Society. I’ve always been really into football – whether it was lacing up my football boots and enjoying a kick-about up until my early 50’s or heading to the stadium, scarf in tow, to be part of the crowd magic that only football can muster.
But everything changed for me on the 19 December 2011, aged just 58, I heard the words I’ll never forget:
“You’ve got dementia”.
When the doctor said those three little words, I felt a fear like no other, the cold sweat ran down my back and neck like a river and my mind immediately ran to the darker thoughts of the future - will I be put in a home? Will I lose my job? How will I pay my mortgage?
At first, I withdrew into myself, and I would stay in bed till late, watch daytime TV and go to bed early. I thought I could no longer contribute anything to society. When you’re diagnosed with dementia, you soon develop the superpower of invisibility - once people know about your dementia, they start to talk about you, over you, around you, as if you aren’t there.
Even in a room full of people, it can be the loneliest place in the world.
I didn’t know who I was anymore - I used to be so sociable and thrived when getting out into my city, exploring the country and going on holidays. But this all but stopped.
Along the way, I lost some friends and just had my family really to rely on. My wife became my rock, she became my confidence when I lost it, something a lot of family carers have to take on.
In an instant, your world shrinks.
Love of football creates a community
Things started to look up for me when I was told about a group held at Everton football club, set up specifically for people living with dementia in the community, a space to talk all things football, enjoy music, quizzes, and just have a laugh with friends and others alike.
When I first arrived, there were only seven of us but now we’re a growing group of hundreds and I’m so glad I’m a part of it.
Straight away, I finally felt like I was with people who understood what I was going through.
My confidence skyrocketed and talking about special football memories with people who have empathy, not sympathy, as well as the shared love of the game, created a real bond. I suddenly had a new circle of friends and life felt so much fuller.
The impact of losing a routine
But when the coronavirus lockdown hit, I had to shield, and attending games was no longer a regular fixture in my daily life.
My routine was gone, something many people with dementia rely on to stay independent for as long as possible.
Seeing the stadiums' doors shut for so long was a huge blow.
For many like me, our dementia progressed faster than ever, symptoms increasing and our mental wellbeing taking a massive knock. I bought a treadmill to keep myself going. I just thought this is just like having dementia – just staring at the blank wall not being able to see in front, legs working twice as hard to end up in the same place.
Changing football for the better
Without a doubt, football has helped with my diagnosis, so I’m relieved to see the football season look a little more normal now.
The sport has saved my life, made my life, and is my life.
I want to be able to go to games for as long as possible - it has really helped me get back out into the world and make more memories. The best thing about sport is you can enjoy it no matter what else you’ve got going on, it’s for everyone and has the unique ability to bring us all together.
I’ve since been awarded a British Empire Medal for my work for people with dementia in 2016, using my experience as motivation to help make sure no one else has to go through the same thing.
But I want to be clear, I don’t suffer with dementia; I live with dementia. I know that I will not live long enough to see a world without dementia, but I hope to see one that accepts it.
I hope every football club can become a safe place and helping hand for people affected by dementia and we can change the conversation, so even more people like me can remain part of this adored game.
Using the power of football to change the lives of people affected by dementia
Throughout the pandemic, demand has increased for Alzheimer’s Society’s services, such as the Dementia Connect support line, used over 5.5 million times since the start of the pandemic.
The FA will help raise vital funds for Alzheimer’s Society’s urgently needed support services and increase awareness of what support is available, enabling local football clubs to inform and refer their employees, players, former players and fans to services so they can get the help that they need.
The partnership will ensure no football player, former player, or fan across the nation faces dementia alone.
The FA will work with Alzheimer’s Society to create a network of dementia-friendly facilities, ensuring that stadiums and grounds are accessible, and employees understand the difficulties people encounter to break down the barriers, so people can enjoy watching football for longer.
Help us be there for people like Tommy
Donate £5 by texting FOOTBALL to 70145, or donate online to Alzheimer's Society today.