A new study by University of the West of Scotland and Alzheimer Scotland has explored the effects of the sport walking football on men over 70 who are living with dementia.

The first-of-its-kind research, which was conducted over six months at Hampden Park, has found that the activity promoted a range of physical, mental, social and emotional benefits for the participants, who all had varying degrees of dementia. 

As well as enabling the men to foster new interactions and build relationships, aspects of the study allowed the participants to create new tangible, emotional memories, for example, winning Player of the Day, while also reminiscing about old memories, such as playing or watching football.

A key element of the research highlighted a change in the men’s behaviour when they were presented with a choice of football kit to wear. Teams such as Celtic, Rangers, Queens Park and Partick Thistle provided team kits for the participants.

Observational data confirmed a clear, positive change in the way the men behaved when wearing the football strips, and volunteers recognised that the use of the kits increased engagement and conversation amongst the men, acting as a prop to promote reminiscence.

Data also showed that the programme provided meaningful benefits to the supporters and carers of the participants. Flexible options were given to those attending with the participants, where they could stay and watch the games, have time in the facility café with other carers, or use the free time elsewhere, highlighting the important aspect of carer respite which programmes like this can provide.

Dr Eilidh Macrae, Lead Researcher for the project and Lecturer in the School of Health and Life Sciences at UWS, said: “Our findings showed the reach of properly inclusive walking football programmes and the positive impact they can have in terms of the social benefits for participants and their supporters and carers.

“Our research provides best practice guidelines for creating dementia-friendly walking football programmes, and guidance for those across the community working to make sports more accessible to people living with dementia.

“We hope to build on this research by working with community organisations and sports governing bodies directly. Our aims are to work with the sport sector and use our findings to enhance the skills of the sport workforce, equipping all sports workers and volunteers with the knowledge to confidently work inclusively with people living with dementia.”

Dr Eilidh Macrae, Lead Researcher for the project and Lecturer in the School of Health and Life Sciences at UWS

The research is another example of the pioneering work underway at University of the West of Scotland to tackle dementia. UWS is home to the Alzheimer Scotland Centre for Policy and Practice (ASCPP) – a centre of excellence in advancing dementia policy and practice through education, applied research and social enterprise. Dr Liz Carlin and Dr Rhoda MacRae from the School of Health and Life Sciences were the co-investigators.

Chris Kelly, Dementia Advisor at Alzheimer Scotland and passionate footballer, was working with men living with dementia who wanted to play football but were unable to due to health issues or the inaccessibility of regular walking football programmes.

Commenting on the study, Chris said: “It was amazing being part of the project helping to make sure nobody faces dementia alone, and I am very grateful for the support from the team at UWS.

At a very basic level people loved having the opportunity to get together with a group of friends for a ‘kick about’, but I also had people stating it had made their dreams come true playing for their team at Hampden. There was an incredible atmosphere around the place and the benefits were there for all to see. People living with dementia are regularly faced with stigma, particularly around frailty and the need for protection. This report shows that with right support and good partnership working, people living with dementia can be included and participate in a wide range of services. Through working together on similar projects, we can help people live well with dementia.

Chris Kelly, Dementia Advisor at Alzheimer Scotland

“There are plans in place to start walking football elsewhere in Glasgow and Lanarkshire when national restrictions allow, I am really looking forward to seeing these develop with the help of this report.”

The full research report has been published in the journal ‘Sport in Society’. Going forward, the team aim to work with the sport sector directly to encourage the use of the best practice guidance which this research has developed. The team will also conduct similar studies looking at a wider range of sports.

You can access the full report here.