An Aberdeenshire man has been using memories of football to reconnect and improve the lives of people affected by dementia.
After being part of both his father’s and then later his mother’s journeys with dementia, Inverurie-raised Alan Johnstone has turned to volunteering with Alzheimer Scotland to support the increasing number of people affected by the condition.
Alan said: “Alzheimer Scotland provides an invaluable range of professional and volunteer-driven services. When I took early retirement from my position as a senior finance manager with the University of Aberdeen, I decided to use some of my free time volunteering for the charity.
“They asked if I would be interested in joining their football memories programme, operated in partnership with the Scottish Football Museum under the banner of Football Memories Scotland. As a lifelong Dons (Aberdeen Football Club) fan with a keen interest in football in general, this was an ideal opportunity for me.”
Football memories is a reminiscence programme which uses photos, programmes, video clips and other memorabilia to stimulate conversation, jog personal memories and bring people together through a shared love of the game.
Alan added: “I joined a team of volunteers who ran meetings twice a month at Pittodrie Stadium. We would meet for an hour and a half and have a good old blether about all things football related, often diverging into other topics such as places of work, cinemas, dance halls and shops.
"The beauty of the sessions is that there is no set agenda and the afternoon goes where the conversation takes it."
Alan has been volunteering for over five years and has broadened his role by being appointed as an area coordinator for Football Memories Scotland. The duties of this voluntary position are mainly to encourage and support the development of groups throughout the Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire areas, help to establish the set-up of local networks and promote the sharing of good practice and resources.
The programme has expanded greatly over the past few years, both locally and nationally, with sessions now running in Peterhead, Inverurie, Stonehaven as well as doubling the number of sessions held at Pittodrie Stadium each month.
Alan said: “Prior to COVID-19 we were in the process of moving the focus from dementia-only to dementia-friendly, opening membership up to those affected by mental health issues, loneliness and social isolation.
"I had been in the process of expanding the local football memories programme under a new informal partnership with Football Memories Scotland, Alzheimer Scotland, AFC Community Trust and AFC Heritage Trust.
"Our aim was to recruit additional volunteers to take football memories into the community through care homes, sheltered housing, hospitals, community halls, medical clinics and libraries. All very exciting but COVID-19 halted this initiative at the planning stage - hopefully to be revived soon.”
Funding has also been secured at a national level for the programme to partner with Scottish Libraries and other sporting memory equivalents such as cricket, rugby and golf to form Memories Scotland. The aim of the new programme is to broaden its appeal by offering something for everyone on local and social history, in addition to football and other sports.
Partnership working is very important to Alan, having built a number of strong connections which are make meaningful contributions to the memories programme in the north-east including Aberdeen Archives, Art Gallery & Museums; NHS Grampian; AFC Heritage Trust; University of Aberdeen; several other large organisations and a number of care homes and community groups.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the physical sessions have been put on hold, and like many, made way for the running of online virtual sessions.
Alan added: “Online is not for everyone of course, whether those affected by dementia or volunteers, but it has enabled us to cross geographical boundaries so that the groups can cater for those unable to attend face-to-face meetings.
“I strongly believe that while face-to-face will always be a key element of our programmes, online has much to offer going forward.
“I have also created an online Aberdeen Memories Gazette, issued every two weeks, distributed by confidential e-mail and posted on social media. Sharing memories in this way has been really popular since launching in November last year.”
What they said
Alan has developed a real passion for volunteering. He said: “The beneficial effect on members is clear to see and assess, including periods before and after meetings when behavioural improvements are fed back to us by carers.
“The football memories programme helps develop people's sense of wellbeing, takes them into an environment which improves their self-confidence by taking part in group discussion, contributes an atmosphere of positivity and has significant follow-up effects on behavioural issues out with meetings. Above all, we all enjoy fun, laughter, and the banter.
“Volunteering gives me great personal satisfaction, knowing that I am able to make a difference to the lives of so many.
"I enjoy chatting to them in our sessions and I am always learning something new about the past from listening to their fascinating personal stories. Volunteering in this way has enriched my retirement experience and I would recommend this to anyone who wishes to make a contribution, even if only a couple of hours per month."
Roy McPherson, community sport hub officer for Live Life Aberdeenshire who recently connected with Alan through the programme, said: “The Aberdeenshire Community Sport Hubs are exploring options to support Alan and Football Memories Scotland in the area. Discussions are under way around how we can provide support to the existing sessions in Peterhead and Inverurie while also supporting expansion into new areas.
“Alan’s enthusiasm and dedication to the project is infectious and hopefully we can help recruit some new volunteers to support him with his role. Supporting individuals with illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and other mental health issues is more important than ever and we’re working to make sure that sport makes a positive social impact in the area.”
Find out more
Find out more about the Football Memories Scotland sessions