Golf is More Than A Game

How two local football legends’ lives are transformed by golf in their battle with dementia

I’m incredibly proud to share this story with you. In recent weeks, the link between dementia and football has, quite rightly, been in the spotlight. Our governing bodies need to do more to support footballers with dementia. Whilst we cannot offer a cure for this terrible disease, we prove how sport, especially golf, can play a part in creating better outcomes when dementia tries to put an end to a sporting life. The determination to provide more families with the chance to keep that sporting spark in their life burns brighter than ever today. I hope you enjoy the story and help us raise awareness about our pioneering work.

More Than A Game is the incredible short film on how golf is helping transform the lives of two ex-professional footballers living with dementia.

Club record goal scorer, Jim Hague, and towering centre back, Fergus Donaldson are now in their 60s and 70s, but need no introduction to any seasoned Harrogate Town FC fan.

Their heart-warming story brings attention to the link between dementia and football that affects not just world winning heroes like Bobby and Jack Charlton, but also potentially thousands of ex-professionals from that era and how golf can be a solution to the growing dementia crisis.

More Than a Game

Landmark research

A 2019 landmark research project reported that former professional footballers are three and a half times more likely to suffer from dementia, and other serious neurological disease, confirming a long-suspected link between the sport and brain damage. The 22-month research project by the University of Glasgow’s Brain Injury Group also discovered there was a five-fold increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s, a four-fold increase in motor neurone disease, and a two-fold increase in Parkinson’s.

Transforming lives through golf

Golf In Society founder Anthony Blackburn, is on a mission to help transform the lives of an ageing population by introducing them to the health and wellbeing benefits of golf. Anthony and his team have delivered over 600 sessions across the UK supporting families facing challenges in later life including dementia, Parkinson’s, stroke and loneliness.

Jim and Ferg are just two of hundreds of people living with chronic illnesses whose lives have been transformed by Anthony’s Golf In Society sessions which gives them the opportunity to keep that “sporting spark” in their lives.

Anthony says: “It’s interesting that most of the people we support have enjoyed sport throughout their lives, however not always golf. What we do is extend people’s enjoyment of life and show them how golf can be their new sporting fix”.

Raising awareness of the global problem

Teaming up with Albatross Media, they have created a short documentary called ‘More Than A Game’ to showcase the incredible results Golf In Society is achieving at their various golf venues across the country.

“I hope the story of Jim and Ferg acts as a call to action to our health & social care stakeholders, political leaders, the golf industry and society as a whole as to how golf can play a leading role in improving the lives of our ageing nation.

“With the right support, our mission can be fast-tracked and the outcome will be more families benefiting from services like Golf In Society sooner than we imagined.

“If we’re serious as a nation about improving the health & wellbeing of families living with dementia, then services like ours, designed with our customers at the heart of them have got to be more widely adopted”

But the question I really wants to know the answer to is, after watching the film do you think that golf sessions like this should be made available to support more families living with dementia in the UK?

Anthony Blackburn – Founder

Can a common goal be the catalyst to new relationships?

Guest Blog – Written by Aidan Carswell

I believe it is.

So where did It all start?

My journey started when I was 11, both of my parents worked full time and as a result I spent a lot of my time after school around at friends houses or childminders, I loved it.

It opened my eyes up to activities and opportunities that I would never have thought of pursuing. One of these happened to be the wonderful world of golf!

One warm summer day after school, my friend’s mum took me to Ripon city golf club’s Driving range while her child had a lesson at the tennis centre. That was it. I was hooked or as some may say “he’s got the bug”.

I would beg to be dropped off at the golf club throughout the summer holidays where I would practise and play with my friends.

Saturdays were competition days, a chance to get your handicap down and maybe even take some money from the older guys (everyone was an older guy compared to me).

One of my first or it could have been my first ever Saturday competition, I was very anxious and nervous. I didn’t know anybody. I wandered up to the first tee with my tiny little golf clubs and a nervous smile on my face expecting to see three stern looking old men who didn’t really want to play with a little kid who’s just learning.

What I found was the exact opposite!

Three guys stood with big smiles on their faces having a laugh and a joke, they made me feel comfortable instantly. I felt even more comfortable when I watched two of them hit their balls straight into the water.

The one guy who had hit the green was Founder of Golf in Society Anthony Blackburn.

Although it turned out to be the only green, he hit that day, he made my first experience of competitive golf a fond memory, for this I am forever grateful.

I came in and out of golf through my teenage years, trial of life kept me away from golf for around 6 years. An outcome from my challenges had been the realisation that if I was to spend my time doing anything, it should have a positive impact on someone else.

I then decided to play golf again, I headed up to RCGC where it felt like I had never been away. One Saturday I headed to the tee where I noticed I was playing Anthony again, as if my golf life was coming full circle.

During the round Anthony told me about his Social Mission, Golf in Society. (

I was very interested in getting involved, this later led to me getting invited to some of the dementia & Parkinson’s golf days that Golf in Society run at Rudding Park Golf Club in North Yorkshire. (

My experience was for no better word to describe “wholesome”.

The first thing I noticed was the genuine compassion and empathy that everyone had for one another, The outcome being an extremely enjoyable day where I got to spend time with people in their later stage of life who had been given obstacles that would only deteriorate and debilitate as time went on such as dementia & Parkinson’s.

Throughout the day I noticed some key aspects that really stuck with me.

Firstly, the warm welcoming atmosphere created by Anthony (Founder/Golf activator) as people arrived at the club, the caregivers left their loved ones in his capable hands while they went over to the clubhouse for tea and cakes.

The golfers then entered a world of banter, comradery and friendly competitiveness.

There was a range of golfers, from people who had always played golf to people completely new to the game.

I got to watch how a new client was integrated into the group and how the companionship of new friends really had an impact on him. The following week he was back again, and the group had gained another member. Proving to me how valuable the service that Golf in Society really is.

The Common Goal

I was aware of the benefits golf had on my own personal mental health and wellbeing, the feeling of bettering myself and the constant strive for improvement gave me a sense of purpose on the course.

The outdoors, nature and tranquillity gave me a place to reflect on my goals.

After spending a few days helping Anthony run sessions I realised we had a common goal.

To make a positive impact on society.

This solidified in my mind that Anthony’s & Golf in society’s mission was something I needed to be part of.

Although the way that I do that is always evolving.

I really can’t put into words the value of the service that Golf in society provides and the significant impact it has on the individuals involved and as you zoom out, the impact it has on how we approach helping those that have some difficulties later in life.

It truly is a social mission.

It truly highlighted for me the importance of making those later stages in life meaningful and purposeful.

To this day I feel motivated to contribute to the social movement that Anthony has started, and I will continue to do so.

Feel free to follow my journey as I navigate my way through life.

Written by Aidan Carswell

Golf In Society perfectly aligned with the NHS Ageing Well plan

Since I started Golf In Society four years ago, I’ve really struggled to get referrals from NHS professionals, in particular Primary Care Networks (PCN’s). It’s been a series of disappointments that at times make you consider whether there is demand for your social enterprise.

To me it’s always seemed a “no-brainer” that a service that enables people to improve their physical activity, stimulates cognitive function, increases social engagement and supports primary carers in a single intervention would be embraced by PCN’s.

Despite numerous visits, communication and distribution of leaflets, generating new referrals from PCN’s has remained a challenge.

However, after reading the Ageing Well part of the NHS long term plan it’s made me realise that Golf In Society is perfectly aligned with the ambitions of PCN’s.

It also leads on very nicely from the fact I mentioned yesterday that 1.7 million hospitals days are taken up by older people with dementia.

Before you read the sections taken from the Ageing Well NHS plan, here are two graphics that highlight the positive impact we have on people’s lives every time we deliver one of our golf sessions.

So let’s start by looking at the commitment from PCN’s to the Ageing Well long term plan.

NHSPrimary care networks will from 2020/21 assess their local population by risk of unwarranted health outcomes and, working with local community services, make support available to people where it is most needed.

Based on their individual needs and choices, people identified as having the greatest risks and needs will be offered targeted support for both their physical and mental health needs, which will include musculoskeletal conditions, cardiovascular disease, dementia and frailty. Integrated primary and community teams will work with people to maintain their independence: for example, 30% of people aged 65 and over,  and 50% of those aged 80 and over, are likely to fall at least once a year [9]. Falls prevention schemes, including exercise classes and strength and balance training, can significantly reduce the likelihood of falls and are cost effective in reducing admissions to hospital [10].

That’s the first box firmly ticked. You only have to see our golfers in action to see the difference it makes to their physical well-being and confidence. Here’s an interesting fact for you.

In over a 1000 hour of golf we’ve had no falls that have resulted in a hospital admission. Sure, we’ve had a few trips and stumbles but nothing that a quick brushing down and reassuring conversation hasn’t fixed.

So let’s move on to the commitment to carers who have for too long been the forgotten victims of Ageing Well agendas.

NHSCarers will benefit from greater recognition and support.

 The latest Census found that 10% of the adult population has an unpaid caring role, equating to approximately 5.5 million people in England – around 4 million of whom provide upwards of 50 hours care per week. 17% of respondents to the GP patient survey identified themselves as carers. Many carers are themselves older people living with complex and multiple long-term conditions. We will improve how we identify unpaid carers, and strengthen support for them to address their individual health needs. We will do this through introducing best-practice Quality Markers for primary care that highlight best practice in carer identification and support.

A huge tick in this box. When I started my social mission I’d never really considered the positive impact it would have on the lives of carers. The testimonials we receive from carers say it all.

And finally, let’s take a look at the commitment to dementia support.

NHSWe will go further in improving the care we provide to people with dementia and delirium, whether they are in hospital or at home.

 One in six people over the age of 80 has dementia and 70% of people in care homes have dementia or severe memory problems. There will be over one million people with dementia in the UK by 2025, and there are over 40,000 people in the UK under 65 living with dementia today [11]. Over the past decade the NHS has successfully doubled the dementia diagnosis rate and halved the prescription of antipsychotic drugs [12]. We have continued to improve public awareness [13] and professional understanding. Research investment is set to double between 2015 and 2020, with £300m of government support [14]. We will provide better support for people with dementia through a more active focus on supporting people in the community through our enhanced community multidisciplinary teams and the application of the NHS Comprehensive Model of Personal Care. We will continue working closely with the voluntary sector, including supporting the Alzheimer’s Society to extend its Dementia Connect programme which offers a range of advice and support for people following a dementia diagnosis.

I think this is where our service stands out as a perfect example of how a single intervention can be designed to meet the personal needs of ageing adults and their carers, no matter what challenges come their way later in life.

With over 450 golf sessions successfully delivered and so many lives transformed, I think we’ve earned a few “ageing well stripes”.

The desire to convince PCN’s to commit their support to our innovative intervention and why embracing it makes so much sense burns brighter than ever. It really is a “no-brainer”.

Hospitals and the Big D

I think we all agree that hospitals are the worst place for people living with the Big D to spend time.

Unfamiliar surroundings filled with strangers trying to talk to you are challenging situations to deal with at the best of times, let alone in a busy clinical environment. “Where am I?, who are you?, leave me alone, get off me” will be all too familiar comments made to hospital teams when treating patients with dementia. For the purpose of this blog I’m going to call them D-patients.

I realise that in certain circumstances there’s no alternative to a hospital admission. However, I’m sure we all agree that this needs to be kept to an absolute minimum for D-patients.

This is why I was saddened to read the recent Public Health England report titled “Older people’s hospital admissions in the last year of life”.
Older people are classed as 75 years and older. According to the report the largest total number of days spent in hospital (1,760,801 days) was in people who died from an underlying or contributory cause of death of dementia (see bottom chart).
As far as I can gather we need to address three issues here. Firstly, reduce the number D-patient admissions. Secondly, discharge them sooner into the safety and comfort of the place they know as home. And finally, reduce the number of D-patients passing away in hospitals.

As you can see most admissions for D-patients are emergencies. My experience as a carer leads me to believe that a large number of these admissions will have been as a result of a trip, slip or fall at home. Emergency services will probably have been involved.

In order to make my point, I’m going to share a harrowing incident I witnessed during my early days as a carer when an elderly man fell at home. His wife was too frail to pick him up. He was in a state of undress. When the ambulance arrived they couldn’t lift him safely. They called for more assistance. In the end three ambulances were on site and he was carried down the stairs using a bed sheet. You can imagine the distress this caused.

Three days after being discharged the gentleman had another fall in his bathroom and was hospitalised again. He never got the chance to live at home again as he was discharged into a nursing home. He died soon after.

The outcomes could have been so much better had the necessary adjustments been made to his home.

He would have lived longer, safer and independently in his own home that he adored so much. There would have been fewer emergency interventions, hospital admissions and number of days spent in an environment that caused him so much distress.

So my main point is that we all need to work much harder on keeping people living with dementia safe and secure in their own homes for longer. With the necessary adjustments to their living space this can be achieved.

If we achieve this then the outcomes will be fewer D-patient admissions, quicker discharges and more people spending their last year of life in their own home.

Imagine the positive outcomes for D-patients and the NHS if we reduced the 1.7 million hospital days by a third. Believe me, it’s achievable if we get the right primary and preventative measures in place when families first receive their dementia diagnosis.

We all know how distressing hospital stays are for D-patients. That’s why reducing the days spent in hospital is such an integral part of my D-plan.

Golf plays its part in bridging the generation gap

Something very special happened yesterday at one of our weekly golf days for people facing the D-challenge.

We’ve recently recruited a new golfer who apart from being a past-captain, is also a life-long Bolton Wanderers fan. He loves his weekly “golf-fix” with us.

As it’s half-term his grandson was with him who is also a Bolton fan. He was a proper little gentleman. I offered him the chance to join us but he said he was going to hit a few golf balls with his grandma on the range.

So far in this inter-generational tale we’ve got a golfer getting ready for his day with us, a grandson about to practice with his grandma and two Bolton fans from different ends of the generation scale.

The next part of the story couldn’t have been written if we hadn’t taken the time to get to know our golfers and their background.

I knew that in a few minutes one of my golfers would arrive who had played for Bolton and been taught to head the ball by the footballing legend, Nat Lofthouse.

Right on cue Jim arrived with his wife. I called Jim over to meet a young man who I introduced as a Bolton fan. They immediately hit it off and started chatting about their love of football, one starting out on his career and the other with a very special one already in the onion bag.

To hear them both talking about technique, tactics and skills as well as sharing their football experiences were yet more priceless memories for our ever-growing archive of champagne moments. Jim’s advice on taking penalties (he never missed one) was brilliant for a young footballer to hear as he makes his way in the game he loves so much.

The happy ending to the day was that Jim was in the winning team and left with our weekly champagne moment trophy. And by the way, the D-word was never mentioned once.

Yesterday was another perfect example of why bringing communities together at golf clubs makes so much sense in so many ways.

The D-Plan – Let’s start by facing up to the challenges

Terry Pratchet got it spot on when he talked about how many people were in the firing line of dementia. He’s passed now but the challenges he alluded to still remain unresolved.

In order to deal with the dementia crisis we need to start by being open and honest about some uncomfortable, unpopular and unpalatable truths.

So here’s a few to start with…

  1. Diagnosis takes too long
  2. Support services are inadequate and arrive too late
  3. Families try and cope too long without seeking help
  4. Current resources cannot provide person-centred support
  5. Dementia carers are underpaid and overworked
  6. Health & social care commissioners are not embracing innovation
  7. Traditional systems & procedures are not fit for purpose
  8. Everything is too complicated
  9. Insufficient budget gets through to front line services
  10. Our health & social care leaders are failing to stand up to the scale of the crisis

My final and most important point is that we’re failing to give people the human right to live with dignity and respect when dementia comes knocking at their door.

Anyone starting to get defensive at this stage should probably not read any further. For those who realise that we need innovation, radical reform, future proofed support services and share my passion to transform the future of dementia care then please read on.

So let’s start with the exciting, positive and creative stuff.

Everything in dementia support needs to be designed with the families at the heart of it. Nothing should be too much effort. Dignity, respect, compassion and positivity need to be core values. Current leaders need to remember that at the heart of every diagnosis is an individual and a family with the human right to live life too.

So here’s some of the key elements that make up the framework in which we need all need to operate if we are to future proof dementia care.

  1. Early & accurate diagnosis
  2. Start planning early for the changes & challenges ahead
  3. Allow people to keep doing their favourite things
  4. Keep relationships intact (don’t let loved ones become carers too soon)
  5. Introduce new environments and support networks early on
  6. Create positive, inclusive and accessible environments
  7. Keep life as normal as possible
  8. Provide everyone with a sense of purpose
  9. Never mention the D word
  10. Compassion not sympathy please
  11. Nothing is ever too much trouble
  12. Over 70 % of all resources allocated to front line services

Seismic change is required in current thinking, policy and strategy. Research into finding a cure needs to be clearly separated from the support for families diagnosed for whom a cure will arrive too late.

The good news is that if we face up to these challenges now and work within a framework where families and front line services are at the heart of everything, then dementia care can be affordable and available to every family when this terrible disease decides to enter their life.

In the next blog I’ll share the part of my D-Plan on how to ensure early diagnosis and how to create a supportive structure for every family.

The D Plan – A view for a brighter future from the dementia coalface

It’s interesting to hear all the visions, strategies, pledges, commitments made every week to solve the crisis in dementia care. The volume and frequency of the rhetoric always seems to intensify around important political events or awareness campaigns. Within a few days or weeks they often fade away with very little impact.

There’s a really good reason that the crisis in dementia support is deepening rather than improving. It’s because most of the rhetoric and strategies lack the invaluable insight and lived experience of the people working at the coalface of dementia care and the families they support.

For those of you like me who spend their lives at the coalface of delivering dementia services, you will share my frustration at the increasing number of failing strategies, policies, and support systems that have no chance of transforming the devastating impact of dementia on families living in all our communities.

The future cannot be waiting for cross-party political consensus on the future of social care. There you are, I’ve said it publicly now.

Any future dementia care vision & strategy is doomed to fail if it ignores the views, needs and creative ideas from people who live and work with dementia every day.

However, there is a really simple plan that could transform the lives of so many families facing this devastating and deadly disease.

You may ask yourself, what gives me the right or credibility to talk about the future of dementia care?

I have no “ology” or letters behind my name. I’m not clinically or professionally educated in neurological science, occupational therapy, mental health or adult social care.

However, with a five year track record as a dementia caregiver and successfully delivering over 400 golf sessions for people diagnosed with dementia and their carers, I think I’ve earned my stripes at the dementia coalface to form a constructive & innovative view on the future of dementia care.

As we all approach a new decade of living with dementia, now is the perfect time to embrace pioneering, innovative support services built on lived experience and designed in partnership with the families they support.

I call it my D-Plan “Future proofing better lives for families living with dementia”

In the year ahead I’ll start sharing the D-Plan with you. All I ask is that you embrace it with an open mind and remember that it has been designed with dementia families at the heart of everything.

Happy New Year to you all. X

The George Haydon Cup

For those of you like me who cannot imagine a day without sport in your life, you’ll quickly realise why meeting George and his wife Gillian was a very special day in my life.

George passed away recently but has left me, and many others, with some very special memories that will last a lifetime. My life is richer for knowing him.

George was one of my first clients when I started as a Caregiver with Home Instead Harrogate. In the early days I used to take him to enjoy group exercise sessions for people with Parkinson’s. We also spent many an hour catching up on the sports news and the state of politics.

George learning to play from his wheelchair

George enjoyed sport throughout his life, especially cricket and football. He also enjoyed his career as a cricket umpire and football referee. The George Haydon Cup that we will play for is a very special piece of silverware as it was presented to him for services to refereeing in the London area.

When Gillian told me the significance of the trophy that she was dedicating in George’s memory it moved me to tears.

George’s interest in politics stemmed from a career as a public servant in the Treasury. One of his claims to fame was playing cricket with John Major. As an MCC member and an Arsenal season ticket holder, you can imagine the lovely moments we enjoyed chatting, debating and watching sport together.

His favourite footballer was the late, great Charlie George.

It was an absolute pleasure to support George enjoy the sporting banter he had loved throughout his life.

However, one of George’s greatest legacies is that our Parkinson’s Golf Days would never have happened without a “light-bulb” conversation in his living room.

Chatting away with Gillian and George about my dementia golf days in Lincoln resulted in this question “Have you ever considered doing something similar for Parkinson’s?”

As they say, the rest is history with over 20 people enjoying our fortnightly golf days at Rudding Park.

Gillian’s regret is that the golf days started too late for George. However, his legacy is that so many others are enjoying better lives with Parkinson’s as a result of discovering golf.

It will be a very emotional moment when we hand The George Haydon Cup to the winning team at our fundraiser on the 14th August.

Join The Club – Golf In Society Leads The Way

The last place many families living with dementia would think of going for an enjoyable day out would be their local golf club. An uncomfortable truth for the golf industry is that public perceptions of golf clubs remain unchanged despite numerous campaigns to change them.

That’s why we’re so proud of leading the way in proving how much golf can offer families facing the challenges of dementia.

We’ve broken down so many barriers along the way and have many more to overcome.

The good news is that our pioneering work is gathering momentum and proving how golf clubs can benefit from engaging more with their local community.

Here’s a great feature by the Alzheimer’s Society about our work and how we’ve made golf the highlight of the week for the families we support.

Who would have thought it would be happening at their local golf club?

More Proof Why Golf Is A Wonder Drug

Who would have know that golf is one of the new wonder drugs. It has the power to reduce chronic illness, improve healthy ageing, reduce loneliness, give people a sense of purpose and reduce the inactivity timebomb facing our nation.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of listening to the attached presentation by Dr William Bird from Intelligent Health. It was the most compelling and thought-provoking medical presentation I’ve ever witnessed. A wonder drug called FITERIX was introduced to us that has all the necessary ingredients to transform the health & wellbeing of our ageing popualtion.

During the presentation we all took part in a poll as to how much moderate exercise we had completed the day before. The audience of nearly 200 people were all asked to keep their hands up as Dr Bird kept increasing the number of hours achieved. Most people had their hand up at the 30 minute point. Half the people put their hand down at one hour. Only twenty people still had their hands up at the two hour mark. I was one of only six people left with their hands up as achieving more than three hours moderate exercise.

When asked to explain how I’d managed to fit so much exercise into my working day my reply was simple ” I play golf every day and support others to enjoy the game too”.

Here’s the link to Dr Bird’s full presentation. It’s the most compelling argumentation ever as to why GOLF FITERIX should be socially prescribed and made more accessible to families throughout the UK.