Ex-players tackle dementia in football-mad Spain

Madrid (AFP) – Eight senior citizens huddled around a table stare at a photo of a young Diego Maradona in a red and blue FC Barcelona jersey projected onto a screen at a Madrid retirement home.

Former Atletico Madrid defender Roberto Solozabal, a member of Spain’s gold medal football squad at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, and ex-Valladolid right back Javier Torres pace the room as they gently coax the group to identify the Argentine football legend.

“Great,” says Torres, the sleeves of his grey sweater rolled up to his elbows, after one of the senior citizens correctly identifies Maradona, who played for the Barcelona side in the early 1980s.

Next he asks the group of five women and three men if they recall which foot the player used.

Prodding their memories like this is the aim of workshops held for residents suffering from, or at risk of developing Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, at the private Ballesol Olavide retirement home.

Staff say the activity keeps their minds engaged.

– Days gone by – 

Over the course of 12 weekly, two-hour sessions, ex-players use football photos, programmes and memorabilia from days gone by to stimulate the residents’ memories and help them to recall episodes from their lives.

While the focus on football is novel, the approach it reflects — known as reminiscence therapy — is common in clinical practice for dementia. 

Studies have found the therapy improves both cognitive function and quality of life by boosting self-esteem and fighting loneliness, which is common in care homes.

– ‘Strong emotions’ –

The Spanish Federation of Associations of Former Football Players (FEAFV) launched the programme in 2016 after hearing about a similar initiative in Scotland.

It believed the method could be well-suited to football-mad Spain, which has four daily newspapers dedicated to the sport.

“Football stirs extremely strong emotions, it is something a person remembers,” says federation president, 77-year-old former Athletic Club defender Juan Maria Zorriqueta.

As dementia progresses, memories of childhood and early adulthood tend to endure the longest.

Stirring up memories of players and matches from decades ago also helps bring back recollections from other aspects of people’s lives at that time.

Talking about the 1982 World Cup final between Italy and West Germany at Real Madrid’s iconic Santiago Bernabeu Stadium for instance prompted the Ballesol Olavide residents to remember and discuss where they were working at the time of the match.

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