It’s a cold Monday morning in Perthshire. Winter is not far around the corner. Yet Noah’s Ark Golf Centre is warm with activity and beaming faces. While many of the nation’s golf facilities may not enjoy this buzz at the start of a new week, the Perth facility is different.
From those aged in their 60s to their 80s, balls are feverishly struck in the range bays, putts are holed on the outside greens and the chit-chat is in full swing over tea and biscuits. The smiles, the stories and the confidence are a joy to behold.
Thanks to the work of sterling volunteers, a new golf ‘club’ has been forming at Noah’s Ark. Indeed, this is a story that is being played out in Carnoustie and Dumfries with the scope for other golf clubs across the country to become involved.
This is the Golf Memories Project, part of the Sports Heritage Scotland network to help those living with memory loss conditions, notably dementia. Scotland currently leads the world in reminiscence therapy. Football, cricket, curling, rugby and shinty are among the sports also involved, a collaborative effort of reminiscence groups to stir memories and fulfil lives.
It’s working a treat at Noah’s Ark, with 15 registered participants involved in their weekly Monday morning sessions from across the Perthshire community, with the aid of eight caring volunteers.
“We all get a kick out of it,” says David McPhee, Equalities Team Leader at Perth & Kinross Council, an organisation supportive of the initiative. “First thing on a Monday is not usually a great start to the week, but because you are seeing all the participants and volunteers benefit from this it does put a smile on your face. They are a great group of friends now and it is really good to see the enjoyment and fulfilment it brings to their days.”
Building on the superb work of the well-publicised Football Memories work, the golf group took root in Perth two years ago, initially at Bell’s Sports Centre. It involved talking about players and events from the past and working with images and memorabilia to help illuminate memory banks. It worked, but it soon became clear that there was a hankering among the individuals to strike a ball again, to play out their own past glories. The move to Noah’s Ark now stretches over 18 months.
“They have been unfortunate in life to live with dementia but to share some time with them and seeing them coming in, having fun and leaving with a smile on their face it is a big positive for us all,” says Stewart Walker, another key volunteer. “You know when they go back home again they probably won’t be doing a great deal, so this is a great outlet for them.”
Stewart first became involved in Football Memories and helped set up groups in the likes of Perth and Blairgowrie, as well as at Hearts and Livingston Football Clubs. Football Memories is a product of Alzheimer Scotland’s pioneering work on their Football Reminiscence project. Like David, he has been delighted to now see the golf group grow.
“There is a tendency when people get a dementia diagnosis that they hide away,” he explains. “But if golf was their thing this is the best place for them to be. When you see them standing with a club lining up to hit, you can see they haven’t lost that from their memory. It is a joy to watch. They also recognise their volunteer and have that relationship with them working here.”
Out on the putting green, Ron Clark is one of the longest-serving volunteers. He used to be the club doctor at St Johnstone FC, so knows a thing or two about illness and injury.
“Yes, I look forward to it every Monday, although maybe not on cold days like this!” he laughed. “Even with my medical background I’m hopefully helping in some capacity here.”
Back inside and Niall McGill, Head Professional at Noah’s Ark Golf Centre, is passing on a few swing tips and making the whole morning run smoothly – as he does each week. “It has been really enjoyable to be involved with the group,” he says. “The banter is great and it’s very fulfilling to see the enjoyment that our group get from being able to hit a ball and have a putt. You can see the competitive nature coming through and also the frustration golf provides following a bad shot!”
The older golfers are certainly benefiting, but so are facilities and clubs. It is a model that could work elsewhere. “I think there must be plenty opportunities to expand it,” states Stewart. “We’re looking to go out to Blairgowrie next April after holding a successful taster session there. There are golf clubs who have a similar set up, with a range and an area where a group can meet for a chat and a cup of tea. Some golf clubs may be quiet, certainly on a Monday, and it’s a chance to bring a group along and let them hit a ball.”
David adds: “They see this as essentially their golf club here, which is great. Many clubs do have the facilities to host these groups. We’ve had a session at Pitlochry before. Clubs recognise that as their members get older they may drift away from the club. Whereas something like this could keep them active, involved and included much later in their lives.”
John is a former member at Craigie Hill GC, just down the road. He loves taking part. “I’ve enjoyed it since I started, about 18 months. I love hitting some shots and it’s all a bit of fun. I thoroughly enjoy it. It’s great trying to hit it past the various targets on the range.”
“It has made a big difference to their lives and equally it has made a big difference to the lives of their carers or their wives,” continues Stewart. “They may go off and do something on their own while their husband hits balls, which is great as it can be difficult to get time away when you are caring. Equally, we have two wives here who come along and support us by looking after the teas and coffees.
“Football Memories has been an amazing success and this has the potential to be equally successful.”