Ahead of World Alzheimer's Day 2020, we spoke with Hamburger SV about their works in supporting people with Alzheimer's and dementia.

Hamburg (HSV) have created a series of memory boxes, designed to help fans with Alzheimer's and dementia to recall past memories through the unique power of football.

In 2017, the German federal health ministry recognised dementia as one of the biggest challenges faced by society. Over 1.7 million people in Germany live with Alzheimer's and dementia, and this figure is expected to almost double by 2050.

HSV Disability Access Officer Fanny Boyn told us how the club is committed to supporting its fans with Alzheimer's and dementia, as well as those closest to them.

Can you explain a little more about the Hamburg memory box programme?

In Great Britain, the Alzheimer Society has been researching the relationship between football and dementia diagnosis for a number of years. Studies and projects show that remembering moments in football can improve memory and welfare for football fans. Based on these positive experiences, in conjunction with HAW Hamburg and the Alzheimer Foundation, we aimed to develop a ‘memory box’ for fans with dementia.

The memory box aims to help fans to recall positive memories and improve their ability to recall memories and information. In healthcare, working with memory as part of helping the patients to create a biography of themselves plays an important role. Doing this has various effects, like strengthening identity, prevention of loneliness, improvement of welfare and particularly the strengthening of remaining resources and the relaying of feelings of security and belonging. 

What does a memory box contain?

The box contains exhibits from the club’s history. The hope is that people diagnosed with dementia can use the contents of the box to remember important moments in their life, as well as the experience of emotions in the long term. Happy thoughts and experiences should be evoked through talking about the exhibits in the chest.

As such, the box contains historical sportswear, photos, fan merchandise and original soundtracks from memorable games.

Memory therapy can be defined as individual or group conversations about previous experiences, in the hope of stimulating the brain and improving the atmosphere for the person or group. Pictures, stories, music or everyday objects can be used to evoke memories. Even if people with dementia experience short-term memory loss, memories of childhood or early adulthood are retained much longer.

The success of this kind of therapy proves that the enjoyable memories can result in positive feelings for the patients, which has an effect on their general wellbeing.

How does the club manage the programme?

The project is supported by the work of volunteers. These helpers are prepared for the memory therapy in care homes, through a training session with the care department of HAW Hamburg.

The German Alzheimer Society provided support for this training. The emphasis of the course lay in medical basics, and the nurses described caring for patients with dementia.

The contents of the box are taken out one-by-one, and shown so that they are visible for all participants. The item of memorabilia should be named before it is taken out, and then placed on the table.

Afterwards the participants are requested to take one of the items that reminds them of a particular memory. They should hold the item with their hands and explain the memory that they associate with it. After explaining the story, the item is placed back on the table and the next participant has the opportunity to choose and tell their story.

What have some of the highlights of the project been?

During the first visits, a lot of exciting, moving and powerful stories were told by the participants. Not all of these stories were experiences in a footballing context, but also in their everyday lives through association with the items.

One of the residents connected the old football shoes in the box with stories of walking with his family when he was younger, recounting a number of anecdotes from his experiences.

What impact has the project had on people with Alzheimer's and dementia?

We have already observed that the residents were keen to talk, and that a connection was created that wasn’t there before.

Some of the visitors continued to talk about their experiences after the session was over, for example during lunch or a tea break. This has helped them to share fond and positive memories from the past with others, creating an enhanced sense of wellbeing and happiness for the residents.

How has the global pandemic affected the programme?

Due to the coronavirus pandemic and the associated limitations on visits to care homes in Hamburg, the HSV memory box project has unfortunately been paused for the moment. Residents with dementia have had to cope without the personal contact, family visits and usual structures that they are used to in the current situation.

To offer an alternative in a digital format, the idea arose of a virtual dementia box. The film lasts about half an hour, and can be paused at any time so that the residents can talk about what they have seen. Because the individual items come from various moments in history, memories from a whole range of events and eras can be conjured up by watching the film. The aim here is for a shared discussion that can be renewed in regular intervals.

We are currently testing this digital format out, and hope to be able to launch it very soon.

The theme for World Alzheimer's Day 2020 is around breaking the stigma and stereotypes associated with the condition. How has the programme helped to achieve this?

The project has been promoted within the Hamburg area, and we will be showcasing the project at local events and in the media during the 'Dementia - we have to talk' awareness week.

I am going to make a speech at the event in Hamburg on this subject, and will explain how dementia and football are interconnected. We also plan a panel discussion with experts from Hamburg that will take place at the Volksparkstadion, to reinforce the link to football.

The target group is people with dementia, as well as their family members and friends who care for them. The project should raise awareness for the cause and transmit the importance of this topic in society as a whole.

With these initiatives and projects, as a football club we want to make our stance clear on this important area of work. At the moment I am also supervising a dissertation on the subject. The focus of the research is how to enable people with dementia to come to stadiums, what conditions are necessary for this to happen and what needs to be offered at the stadium on matchday to make this possible. By helping people to live as normal a life as possible, is how we can defeat the stereotypes of Alzheimers and dementia.

Hamburg memory box project participant and old club shirt

We would like to thank Fanny Boyn and everyone at Hamburger SV for their support and cooperation with this interview.

You can find out more about the HSV memory box project via the Hamburger SV website (in German). The project has also been promoted on the Fink.Hamburg website (in German).

If you would like to discuss your ideas for similar programmes at your club, please email us at [email protected] or call +44 (0)208 065 5018.

Please note that photographs used in this article were taken before the introduction of social distancing measures.

Published 21/9/2020