Over the Moon, Richie

Two events this week would have thrilled and fascinated Mum. As I watched England’s  improbable Cricket World Cup Final victory at Lords on Sunday – super over and all – my mind went back to the first final in 1975 at the same ground. It was on my 11th birthday and I watched the game all day long, not missing a ball…until the last ten overs. Mum had invited the family for a celebratory tea and that meant we had to sit at the table in the dining room. No radio was allowed so I was forced to miss the closing overs of the West Indies’ win. I’m just about over it now. It was my day, after all!

20 years ago, the World Cup took place in England for the fourth and final time until this year’s competition. I bought tickets for Mum and I to a group game between South Africa and Pakistan at Trent Bridge. This was ten years before Mum’s diagnosis and some time before any signs of what was happening to her began to show. We set off early for the game to make sure we didn’t miss a ball, armed with copious supplies of food. Mum seemed to think she had to cater for both teams as well as the two of us. For Mum, the lunch and tea we took with us seemed every bit as important as the game itself. As is my way, I had eaten most of my share before the shine had worn off the new ball.

South Africa won a close, pulsating game thanks, in no small part, to some ferocious late order hitting from Lance Klusener.

1912 Continue reading

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They Think It’s All Over? It’s Hardly Started. Sport and Dementia

My enduring love of sport comes from Mum. In fact, as I’ve spent the majority of my working life as a sports journalist, I suppose you could say that I owe her my career too.

Like me, Mum was an enthusiastic spectator but a strictly limited player. Dad was less sporting, either as  spectator or player, though he was international class at the little-heralded pastime of Pro-Celebrity Sporting Snoozing. Put a sporting “celebrity” on television and Dad was asleep in seconds.

Mum was a one-time season ticket holder at West Bromwich Albion – my lifelong addiction to all things Throstle comes from her side of the family. In later years, she was strictly an armchair fan but she’d talk fondly of some of the best players she’d watched – Ronnie Allen, Ray Barlow, George “Ada” Lee and, later on, Jeff Astle.

jeff astle

Jeff, of course, died tragically young of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease similar to dementia. Since his death, his family have struggled to obtain answers to questions about the links between football and CTE. Was his repeated heading of the ball, a “skill” for which he was celebrated, a significant factor in his early death?

There’s growing evidence of links between sport, and football in particular, and dementia. And there’s a growing feeling that these sports should be doing more to look after former players who have given so much pleasure. Players like Ernie Moss.

ernie moss

Ernie played most of his professional football away from the brightest spotlight but he was a master goalscorer and it was players like Ernie, just as much as Jeff Astle, who made me fall in love with football. Having watched him play for Chesterfield in the 1970s, I could hardly believe it when I saw him turn out for Kettering Town at Maidstone United in the late 80s. Ernie now lives with Pick’s Disease, a rarer form of dementia.

Given the eye-watering amounts of money in some areas of football today, the sport surely has a duty to do as much as it can and more for former players like Ernie. And, I’d venture, it has a duty to the families of players no longer with us, like Jeff.

But sport has another role to play. Like music, our relationship with teams and players is predominantly an emotional response. (As West Brom were relegated at the end of the season in which I went to my first game, and have gone down at least six times since, I don’t think there’s much rational about my support.) As Tony Jameson-Allen and his award-winning Sporting Memories Network charity has proved, sport can reach the parts of a life affected by dementia that simple conversation no longer can.

A few years ago, I watched a game in the company of a man living with advancing dementia. At lunch before the game, he was silent, disengaged. Once we took our seats pitch-side, his eyes brightened, his attention sharpened.  Years before, he’d been a turnstile operator at the ground. Even now, I’m not sure he knew his own name, but he knew exactly where he was.

In the early days after Mum’s diagnosis, we watched England’s test series with the West Indies together on television. As her Alzheimer’s tightened its grip, she still liked to talk about cricket, even if it seemed as if, for her, Ian Bell of her beloved Warwickshire opened both the batting and the bowling for England. No matter, sport gave us some common ground.

Sport can’t provide a cure for dementia but it can bring comfort and warmth.

We owe sport a lot but sport owes those closest to Jeff Astle, Ernie Moss and many, many others a great deal too.

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Jenga and Mike Oldfield

I played Jenga today today for the first time in a very long while. It was part of a very enjoyable morning spent at the Leominster Meeting Centre.

leomintsre meeting centre

It was a long overdue visit. The concept of a meeting centre – a place where people can adjust to a diagnosis of dementia, receiving support, advice and, most of all, friendship, originated in the Netherlands but more and more are springing up around this country. It’s the fruit of a lottery-funded project being run the University of Worcester’s Association for Dementia Studies.

It was wonderful to spend time in such a supportive, non-judgmental environment. Someone said to me, ahead of my visit, that I would struggle to identify who was living with dementia and who was a carer. She was right but actually that really doesn’t matter. The centre offers equal support to both. The only labels on show are name badges. No-one is defined by an illness or by a role. Staff, volunteers, visitors – everyone mucks in.

When Mum was first diagnosed, more than ten years ago, my sister took her to a day centre. It was Mum’s one and only visit:

“It’s full of old people. I don’t want to go back.”

I can’t help but think that Mum would have loved a day at a Meeting Centre. And she would have willingly joined in with the game of Jenga which proved to be the centrepiece of the morning.


It was full of laughs but also fairly serious. As a visitor, I was keen not to make a fool of myself and I was relieved to have avoided the ignominy of sending the pile crashing to the floor.

Oh, and what has Mike Oldfield to do with this? Well, one of the characters I met today had played on one of the most celebrated albums of the 1970s. Dementia continues to broaden my world.


tubular bells


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Thank you for the Music


I’ve written before about how music, like a popular Dutch beverage, reaches the parts other things can’t. Today, I spent a lovely morning at an Alzheimer’s Society Singing for the Brain session in Coventry, hosted by Dave Willetts, swapping the West End and shows like Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera for a Tennessee Waltz in a church hall in his home city. I can’t imagine an audience at Her Majesty’s Theatre could have derived any greater pleasure than the hundred or so people living with dementia and their carers who joined him today. I was secretly pleased with my performance – fewer bum notes than normal – although I opted not to take part in The Lambeth Walk for fear of inadvertently kicking some innocent reveller.

Many of us have an emotional connection with our favourite songs. They’re like best friends. Glancing around the room today, I saw men and women who had previously said little or nothing singing heartily. Like Mum and her Magic Moments, they might not even have known the names of those closest to them but the words to their chosen tunes came naturally. The Line of Duty star Vicky McClure has explored the links between music and dementia in her BBC documentary My Dementia Choir, an emotional experience for her and her viewers. Today, as we sang You Raise Me Up to bring the session towards its close, I felt a lump in my throat. I don’t particularly like the song but the sight and sound of a room singing with such gusto was enough.

Music does that to me. I hope it does to you too!

Dave Willetts has set up a Foundation to support his work to help people with dementia. He’s recorded a selection of songs inspired by his Singing for the Brain experience. More details from http://www.davewilletts.com


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International Women’s Day

It’s International Women’s Day and over the course of the last few hours, I’ve heard several people – mostly women, it has to be said – talking about women who have inspired them. It prompted me to think who I might choose. There are writers, actors, musicians, even the odd politician whom I admire and respect.

Closer to home, my wife and sister inspire me. Their quiet, and sometimes not so quiet determination, has had and continues to have a huge impact on my life. And, of course, there’s Mum. Mum’s quiet determination to live the best life she could when dementia came calling is typical of so many women I’ve met, both living with dementia and caring.

But Mum was so much more than her dementia. The words of two of the best English songwriters come to mind:

“She gave to me her tenderness, her friendship and her love….. Her life was love and happiness and in her steps I trace, the way to live a better life… .” i

The greatest example, the greatest inspiration can sometimes come from the quietest, most unassuming place. So, yes, let’s celebrate the women who’ve broken through glass ceilings, who’ve left an indelible mark on the world around them. But let’s celebrate – too – those women whose impact lies closer to home.



i). c. Chris Difford, Glenn Tillbrook. Some Fantastic Place  1993

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Happy Birthday Mum

mum and me

Mum would be 82 years old today, February 3rd. She comes to my mind most days but I’ll think about her more today, of course. In fact, I’ve thought a lot about our relationship a lot recently. A friend at work is finding life quite a challenge at the moment. Both her parents are living with dementia and although our stories are different, some bells ring when we talk.

Someone asked me recently how I thought about Mum now. What is the image which comes to mind? In truth, I think of two people – the one in the photo above and the one in the photo below, taken two years ago on her 80th birthday:

mum birthday

But it isn’t two people, it’s two relationships, both rich but different – one which lasted for more than 40 years, in which I was cared for at the start; and another, which began when Mum was diagnosed 10 years ago, in which I was the carer. In Mum’s last few years, it became harder and harder to focus on the first relationship. There were good times and lovely memories from the closing years but it was different – it had to be. But since she died, I’m finding it easier to think of both relationships, both Mums. And those memories are very precious.

On Friday, I’m going to the funeral of a dear family friend whose life, latterly, was touched by dementia. John and his wife Margaret lived next door to Mum and Dad for a relatively short but very convivial time. I’ll take with me the happiest of memories of times our families spent together. After Mum’s diagnosis I took her on holiday to Pembrokeshire and we visited them. Although I couldn’t be sure Mum remembered them, she knew she was in the presence of loving friends.

I hadn’t seen John for nearly two years but I know that life became more difficult in the closing months. But dementia didn’t define John in the way it never defined Mum. Friendship and memories endure.



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It Wasn’t Supposed to be Like This.

Mum said this to me a few months before she died and as you can tell, it struck a chord. It came to mind again last week when I had the privilege to meet Morella Kayman, one of the founders of Alzheimer’s Society in 1979. Morella was the guest of the Society’s fundraising conference and I was lucky enough to be invited along to interview her on stage.


Morella’s life certainly hasn’t followed the course she might have wished for. Twice widowed, her first husband Lawrence was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s while only in his forties. Morella herself was only in her thirties and the diagnosis came after ten year of trying to get some explanation for Lawrence’s condition.

Her story could be described as sad or tragic and yet, speaking to her, those two words were far from my mind. Instead, it’s inspiring, sad at times of course but filled with love and hope. She remembers the bad times but talks about leaving a lot of space in her life for happy memories. Not a bad strategy if you ask me.

I and many thousands of people owe Morella and her fellow Society founders a great debt. When Mum was diagnosed, my sister and I were floundering. Effectively sent away for six months by the medical specialists, Alzheimer’s Society filled the gap, providing support and answers to some of our questions.

So, no, Mum’s life, Morella’s life and the lives of so many more weren’t supposed to turn out the way they have. But that is only a part of the story.

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