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 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' Takes Residents Out Of Shell

Caregivers in the St. Louis area have found a low-tech, low-cost, high-impact way to reach those stricken with dementia. The treatment even has its own theme song. The first line goes, “Take me out to the ballgame…”

Providers at Veterans’ Administration centers in and around St. Louis, as well as the National HealthCare Corp. home in the St. Louis suburb of Maryland Heights, are gearing up for next week’s Opening Day by reconvening what they’re calling “The Cardinals Reminiscence League.”

It’s a chance for those with mild- to moderate-stage dementia to get together to talk ball, around a team that is closer to a civic religion than a professional franchise. Twice a month, members of the league get together to swap stories (or tall tales—it’s baseball, after all) about their local heroes. Occasionally, memorabilia will make the rounds, and members will get to (say) touch Stan Musial’s bat (the equivalent, for you infidels, of sipping from the Holy Grail).

“Talking about the Cardinals just brings them right back to childhood—it brings them back to who they were,” NHC Administrator Susan Taylor tells Provider. “There’s a huge comfort to our residents because it brings them back to a better part of their world.”

At least once per year, the members even get to make a pilgrimage to the Holy of Holies—Busch Stadium. And they get to sit in the dugout.

For obvious reasons, the league is enormously popular, says Marla Berg-Weger, professor of social work at St. Louis University, but it has already worked miracles.

“It is one of those moments where you think, yes, this is why we do the work that we do,” Berg-Weger tells Provider. “I sat through several groups, and I watched these guys who clearly have dementia pull up memories from decades ago. It’s just heartening.”

It’s an especially effective way to reach the men of the home, NHC’s Taylor says.

“Since there are so many women here, it’s great to be able to have some male bonding,” she says. “Just to have that feeling of, ‘This is who I am.’”

It’s not exclusively a boys’ club, though. In fact, the annual visit of team mascot Red Bird often sets the ladies all a-twitter, Taylor says.

Further, the talk isn’t limited to baseball.

One aging veteran who hadn’t spoken up during most of the sessions was suddenly reminded, while talking about baseball during the 1940s, of his military service, and he went on as though he were recounting the day before, Berg-Weger says.

One league facilitator also noticed the effect the league had on some of the women in the group.

“These women told stories about their childhood, of their teenage boyfriends, first jobs, and their own children,” the facilitator said. “At one successful session, a woman brought a photo album from a vacation she had taken. The photos were passed around, and more stories of travels and vacations were told.”

The league was inspired by a similar program in Scotland, where fanatics of the local soccer (football) clubs who were suffering from mild to moderate dementia got together to relive the glory days on the old pitch, Berg-Weger says.

Berg-Weger wrote up the St. Louis league in the February issue of the Journal of the American Medical Directors’ Association. One of the hidden benefits of the league is how much rest it can give to families and friends caring for their loved one, she tells us.

If the comments from caregivers are any indication, the league is boffo.

“My dad really enjoys the Cardinal Reminiscence League,” one new fan wrote. “It is one of the big highlights in his life, and I know he would miss this special event.”

Another commenter said, “These are memories to keep forever and share with your grandchildren.”

Yet another said, simply, “We sincerely hope there will be more programs like this throughout the country to give others with Alzheimer’s a chance to remember their childhood.”

Former federal health care official and veteran person-centered care activist Karen Schoeneman certainly hopes so, too.

“It’s an excellent idea,” she says, “because it taps into the feeling part, rather than a fact part. I am seeing great activity departments, and I’m seeing homes and assisted living centers do this a whole lot more. The theory is, find what’s left. And that’s the emotional part.”

The great thing about such groups is that they can be about anything, Schoeneman says.

“Dessert, ice cream, music—it’s common to us that emotional experiences are stored in many places in the brain,” she says. “It can be something as simple as Thanksgiving dinner. Something as simple as just putting poultry spices in a pot of warm water stirs memories.”

Indeed, Berg-Weger, the program coordinator, says she and her colleagues in the Alzheimer’s Association are already working on a “toolkit,” with basic principles and practices that will help other providers form their own versions of the league.

“It’s a work in progress,” she says. “Hopefully by spring, early summer, [the toolkit] will be rolled out and made available. “It’s going to be available to anyone who wants it. It could be movies, it could be religion—this could be around anything that people have a common, long-term shared history with.”

But just try forming another team’s league round Maryland Heights, NHC’s Taylor says: “We’re Cardinal Nation over here.”

(Email Bill Myers at Follow him on Twitter, @ProviderMyers.)

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