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Researchers using Clemson football to help dementia sufferers reclaim treasured memories

Clemson faculty member Brent Hawkins watches as a Brookdale resident rubs a replica of Howard’s Rock. (Clemson University)

Clemson researchers are using Tigers football games from the past to fight the effects of dementia as part of an ongoing study on the effectiveness of so-called "reminiscence therapy."

The idea behind the treatment, researchers say, is to use stimulating memories to battle against memory decline.

The research team recently put the treatment to the test at Brookdale Senior Living Solutions in Central, where they tested the technique on several people.

“Reminiscence therapy is one of the best ways to help people recall things; a smell from cooking or lyrics from a favorite song can bring back memories from decades ago,” said Brent Hawkins, assistant professor of recreational therapy. “This type of therapy is common in recreational therapy, but it’s rarely paired with sports.”

Hawkins credits the original idea for the research project to Gregory Ramshaw, associate professor in Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department, the university says.

Ramshaw got the inspiration from similar programs, leading he and Hawkins to apply for a research grant from Clemson's Brooks Sports Science Institute.

After some collective brainstorming, the two settled on Clemson football nostalgia as a center for the study.

“These memories are collective, especially in a community and college atmosphere like Clemson’s,” Ramshaw says. "It made sense that even if residents weren’t diehard fans, the odds would be good that they would have a tangential relationship to those Saturdays every year.”

The research team, which includes graduate students Taylor Hooker and Katie Walker, had its first session at Brookdale in late October.

Sessions focused on topics including Memorial Stadium, tailgating and Clemson football traditions. Research participants held footballs and put on as much orange as possible, and those who could stand even joined in Clemson cheers, the university says.

Even some self-proclaimed Georgia fans got in on the fun, Clemson officials say.

Old programs, ticket stubs, and replicas of Howard’s Rock were among the nostalgic items presented to those participating.

Researchers said they quickly found participants were less inclined to discuss games as they were "social experiences" surrounding the games.

Eventually, Brookdale officials say people involved began to greatly look forward to the researchers' visits.

“The second Taylor or Katie walked in the door the residents were chasing them down the hall,” said Taylor Yeomans, resident program coordinator at Brookdale. “I usually have to bring residents to programs, but many were arriving 45 minutes early; residents and their family members were excited for it.”

Yeomans said she saw the positive results of the program firsthand, spotlighting one resident with cognitive issues and difficulty speaking who was able to put thoughts together and frequently tell stories in the sessions .

Some residents even waved off physical therapists or delayed lunch so they could stay longer to play cornhole or discuss a session topic further, Yeomans said.

Ramshaw says residents who participated in the study actually decided to keep the program going after the study ended.

Artifacts the research team gave the participants and other materials remain available at Brookdale so its staff can continue the program, according to Clemson.

Ramshaw says researchers hope to do what they did for Brookdale on a larger scale in the future.

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