A golf project in Lincolnshire is offering sport and social stimulation to people with dementia.
A group of people with dementia are heading out onto the driving range at Lincoln Golf Centre to begin their weekly session. Their relatives stay behind to socialise or enjoy time together, knowing that their loved ones are happy and well looked after.
This is Golf in Society, a social enterprise that aims to improve the lives of people affected by dementia through the health and wellbeing benefits of golf.
The project, which also offers sessions for people with Parkinson’s, was started in September 2015 by social entrepreneur Anthony Blackburn. He worked on the idea with England Golf – the governing body for amateur golf in the country – and Alzheimer’s Society.
Lincolnshire was chosen because of its low diagnosis rates and a need for programmes for people in the earlier stages of dementia.
‘I doubt there are many people who would think about golf after a diagnosis, so this is quite groundbreaking,’ says Anthony.
The group are hitting balls on the driving range, where specially trained volunteers, known as golf activators, are on hand with helpful advice about footwork or club position. They also offer supportive comments – with the occasional exception.
‘A load of rubbish! Is that the best you can do?’ jokes volunteer Pip after a shot from Alan, who responds by pretending to prod him with his club.
‘I love it here. I feel very good when I’m playing,’ says Alan.
Alan Dawkins, 82, was diagnosed with mixed dementia – vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s – in May 2015.
‘I’ve been playing with these lot every week. I love it here,’ he says. ‘I feel very good when I’m playing.
He breaks off as one of the players hits a big shot. ‘Oh my godfather!’ he cries, as the ball flies through the air.
‘Right then, gladiators,’ shouts volunteer Richard Phipps, a retired mental health nurse. ‘Time to go out on the course and play a bit of real golf!’
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Sense of purpose
Alan has been playing golf for decades, but other group members like John Cowham are newer to the sport.
‘Good grief, no!’ he laughs when asked if he’s always been a golfer. ‘I played rugby.’
A retired teacher who was diagnosed with mixed dementia, again both vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s, in July 2017, John particularly enjoys the social side of the sessions.
‘It’s just good fun,’ he says. ‘You’re with other people and they’re cheerful. If they weren’t, I’d be out the door like a shot.’
The men split into three groups to play a golf game called Texas Scramble, which keeps them all involved.
George Scrini, who used to play football and cricket, marked his Golf in Society debut last week by taking home the trophy for the day’s ‘champagne moment’ – the best shot or achievement.
‘I enjoy what I’m doing,’ he says. ‘It’s people who are out here to enjoy themselves.’
Richard feels a sense of purpose among his fellow volunteers, who feel they are achieving something.
‘It's so positive to see the players leave with a big grin on their face, having been able to recall some of their previous sporting or work achievements and walk out with their arms around each other's shoulder,’ he says.
Pip Sykes adds, ‘I don’t view it as a carer taking out a patient – I greet them as friends. They’re human beings, not Martians.’
After a successful session, the players head back to the clubhouse to be reunited with their partners for lunch and some social time.
‘A lot of courses have barriers or elitist views, but we’re a different kind of club,’ says Andy Randall, Manager at Lincoln Golf Centre. ‘This group just fell perfectly under our umbrella.
‘The plan is to be a blueprint for other golf clubs to follow.’
Alan’s wife Chris agrees that some clubs can be unsuitable for people with dementia, describing them as ‘intolerant’. However, this project has had a positive impact on both her and her husband.
‘This is by far the most stimulating time that he has in the week,’ she says. ‘It might also be the only three hours that I get.
Dementia is very claustrophobic – it’s really hard. This is the one thing in the week that I don’t want to miss.’
‘I get a huge amount of emotional support from it and practical tips from others in the same position,’ says Carey.
John’s wife Carey has also felt the benefits.
‘I’ve found it incredibly supportive. It’s a group of new friends,’ she says.
‘Dementia carers can feel stressed. You need to be able to share that with other people. I get a huge amount of emotional support from it and practical tips from others in the same position. People understand what you mean.’
Anthony has now run over 400 sessions in Lincoln, Harrogate and Glasgow, and wants to help create dementia-friendly golf clubs in every county of the UK.
‘We’re on a journey that’s going to make our social dream a reality,’ he says. ‘So many people living happier lives – that’s a fantastic legacy.’