Women, dementia, sport and reminiscence – uncovering hidden voices

Becky Oatley, one of our sport and dementia PhD students provides a wonderful insight into her research and invites people to get in touch if they would be interested in taking part in the future.

(All names have been changed in the following to prevent identification)

There is something magical and haunting about a giant empty sports stadium. You feel like an insider. The empty pitch and silent seating belies the chaos, noise and exertion that exemplifies the matchday experience. A thousand ghosts live inside this sleeping giant; tales of triumph, strength, failure and disappointment swirling around in the stillness.

I am excited to be here. I have a ticket for a sport reminiscence group. The journey inside to the designated room takes in walls decorated with vivid images of the club’s triumphs through the ages. Heroes emblazoned on the wall forever in the folklore of the club.

The room begins to fill, mostly with older men. Some wear their club colours with pride. Some greet each other with a friendly handshake, whilst others sit quietly waiting for the action to begin. There are programmes on the table, with the club’s iconic hero adorning the front. For those who are not so comfortable making conversation, there is safety in burying themselves in the programme. Perhaps also, a hark back to avid reading of statistics, opposition analysis and line ups in former matchday programmes?

The group begins with a chat between a few over summer transfers, but attention soon turns to the club’s current situation. One or two are passionate speakers, whilst others are more reticent. Favourite players are discussed, agreed or disagreed upon. There is chat about the pros and cons of a new stadium, with several men recalling first standing in the kid’s area of the former stadium. There is a sense of legitimacy claimed by those who recall that former stadium and a declaration of pleasure as Bill suddenly speaks up about leaving his bike with a stadium neighbour for just 10p, whilst he went in to watch the game.

Half time sees refreshments, followed by a walk out to the pitch. We take the insiders’ route via the players’ tunnel and out into the dugouts. The ground is magnificent. The men are noticeably calm as they take in their surroundings, one man points out a spot within the stadium. There is laughter as pictures are taken in the dugout. Now here is a team of likely lads!

But it isn’t just lads.

There are a few women in this team too. And it is them whom my attention has actually been focussed upon. Female voices are absent from UK sport reminiscence research thus far. They are rare, but they do exist. It is perhaps no surprise they are hard to find given the dominant masculine culture long associated with British sport (particularly football).

My journey has involved a number of travels around the country to sports clubs like this, hunting for those women hidden from research into sport reminiscence and dementia. Women’s sport has come a long way in recent years.

Since my studies began, I have come across a number of other older women who proudly tell me stories of their passion for sport. That might be as a player, a coach or a fan. Some of those voices come from female carers supporting their husbands, partners or brothers attending sport reminiscence cafes, whilst others are women living with dementia who may or may not be involved in any groups.

I’ve met Mary, who vividly remembers travelling on her father’s shoulders on game day in the hordes of people on the flight path to the stadium. Jean, who travelled the length and breadth of the country with husband Maurice, to follow their local side. Audrey who had been involved in netball up until her 60’s. And there was Elsa, who was not just a fan, but proudly declared she was a “mad fanatic” of her local side.

These women have stories. Stories that are, as yet, unheard. Stories that underpin their presence or absence at the sport reminiscence cafes. What brings them to the group? For some, it is their own passion, for others, it is supporting their loved one.

My research will uncover some of the connections between sport reminiscence and attending such events. It will raise awareness of the diversity of women living with dementia, provide insight into female experiences in a traditionally male domain and add female voices to sport reminiscence research.

If you are a woman who regularly attends a sport memory group at your local club or centre, I’d love to hear from you. Perhaps you know someone who’d like to take part? Taking part involves some informal chats, perhaps you can share some photos? You don’t have to have fluent speech to take part. You may wish to take part with a family member, friend or carer.

Contact r.oatley@worc.ac.uk to find out more.

Connect with the Association for Dementia Studies on twitter @DementiaStudies and on Facebook @adsuow

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