Baseball Reminiscence League An All-American Therapy For Dementia Patients

May 10, 2018

I’m going to share a baseball memory with you and I’ll explain why in just a moment. I can remember back in 8th grade, the 1967 World Series. It was the Red Sox vs. the Cardinals. And back then some of the games were played in the middle of the afternoon. It wasn’t always a primetime evening set-up for TV purposes. So the radios, the little transistor radios, well several of them were snuck into class. 

And those earpieces that came with the transistor radios, they were stuck up the shirt and into the ear. The teacher found out and he said, “That’s enough. Radios off,” but he let two people turn their transistor radios on and let us listen to the World Series game that day. And I remember everyone hanging on every pitch. It was Jim Lonborg vs. Bob Gibson in that game. I’ll never forget that.

And it’s memories like these that are now being used to help people living with dementia. It’s called sports reminiscence therapy.

I’m joined by Michael Ego, professor of human development and family studies at the University of Connecticut. Ego has been working with facilities that care for dementia patients to include sports reminiscence therapy in their treatment.  

Also with me is Donna Spellman, executive director of the River House Adult Day Center in Cos Cob, which is using this therapy.   

Good morning to both of you.

EGO: Thank you for having us.

SPELLMAN: Good morning.

Professor Ego, I understand that sports reminiscence therapy comes to us from…Scotland. How did you learn about it? What drew your attention to it?

EGO: Yes, well my first introduction to sports reminiscence actually occurred when I found out that the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team had initiated a program in 2013. And when I contacted them I said, “Wow! This is a great idea. Did you actually create this concept?” They said, “No, we actually got the idea from Scotland.” And the people in Scotland initiated the program in 2009 that was focused on soccer. And in Scotland, they also wanted to make sure that the men that had the disease would have attention given to them, since most of the programs being offered to people with dementia in Scotland were targeted towards females and they were more focused on creative expression, which didn’t gravitate towards the men.  

And what peaked your interest? What prompted you to call the Cardinals after you heard about the program?

EGO: It was actually related to a course I was teaching. The full title of the course is “Baseball in Society, Politics, Economics, Race and Gender.” So it covers a span. And when I was doing some preparation for that course one day, I came across that article about the Cardinals and that’s what triggered me to say, “Wow, that's sort of different.” And it tied into the fact that baseball has, over the years since it started, been an influence on American society in different ways. And so here was another way that perhaps baseball could add to the quality of life of individuals who were suffering with this disease.  

Alzheimer's patient Hank Soltermann, right, and friend Bob Johnson look at a bat used by former St. Louis Cardinals' Vince Coleman at a meeting of the Alzheimer's support group, the Cardinals Reminiscence League, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis in 2013.
Credit Jeff Roberson / AP

And how is it supposed to help with dementia? What’s the theory behind it?

EGO: Believe it or not, in regards to this particular illness, disease I should say, that long-term memory is a little more accessible than short-term memory. And so what we’ve been doing is to trigger memories about each person’s experiences as baseball participants or as fans. And so we initiate activities that offer them a chance to be with their peers. So we’ve been very fortunate that Donna Spellman has been very receptive to what we’re doing because there are not very many programs that currently exist that focus on baseball in this country.

Donna Spellman, what brought sports reminiscence therapy to your facility, River House Adult Day Center?

SPELLMAN: You know reminiscence in general is a great way of engaging with people. Although somebody might have difficulty recalling a name or the name of a stadium or the name of a player, they do recall the game and the emotional aspect of the game. And you know there are very few people who haven’t been touched by baseball as a culture, as a sport. It seems to be something that really touches most of our client population.

Do you seeing positive changes would you say, in the people participating in the sessions?

SPELLMAN: There’s not a person who goes to the program who doesn’t come to life because something sparks a memory or a story. It’s just magical to see how people just kind of wake up and they talk about it afterwards, to each other. Like the buzz doesn’t just end at the end of the program, but they continue the conversation. 

We have people—actually I don’t know if Michael knows this—we have people showing up wearing baseball caps all the time now. But I can also tell you that it’s not only benefiting the clients themselves, but it’s also benefiting their family members. As an example, now the clients have something to talk to with their family members. And their family members, their caregivers, in that moment, when their talking about baseball, it’s not about the disease anymore, it’s not about the illness.

We had that experience when we went to Citi Field. And I remember the bus ride home when I was taking to an adult daughter of one of our clients and she said how special the day had been because that day was just about the Mets game and it wasn’t so much, “I have to do this for dad. I have to do that for dad.” It was just a day to enjoy out at Citi Field.  

River House clients, and Baseball Reminiscence League members, point to player statistics at a Mets game at Citi Field in Queens in 2017.
Credit Courtesy of River House / Facebook

Professor Ego, you mentioned that you’re working to expand the program to other facilities, but you’re running into some doubt. Just because people want to see actual hard data or there’s a serious doubt about what this kind of interaction can do to make someone’s life a little more pleasant.   

EGO: Right. Well there has been some actual research done on this question. Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma attached to this disease. If you can believe this, when I’ve approached people about helping as a volunteer or maybe to start a program, some people have said to me, “Oh, I don’t want to be around those people because I don’t want to catch what they have.” They actually think it’s contagious.

One of the things that we continue to try to do it to educate and inform people about the disease. As you know we don’t have a cure, we don’t know what causes it. And so we’re looking at the quality of life element for these individuals. If we can show compassion and demonstrate to them that people care about them and that we can do programs like this to enhance the quality of life through the socialization experience.  

Members of the Baseball Reminiscence League head back to Connecticut after the game.
Credit Courtesy of River House / Facebook