When tennis fans flocked to Wimbledon this week, two very special ladies were among the excited crowds watching teen sensation Coco Gauff and three-times champion Andy Murray.
Tennis coach Jane Burniston fell in love with the game at the age of eight, when she was taught to play by her mum Yvette, now 91, and late father Peter.
Now Jane offers England’s only dementia-friendly tennis sessions – after being inspired by Yvette, who has Alzheimer’s.
Jane, 55, says: “Mum might not remember we were at Wimbledon due to her dementia but she is still physically fantastic, and tennis helps with that.
“Seeing her hit the ball and engage with other players brings back happy memories for us both.
“There’s a lot of fear after a dementia diagnosis. Tennis restores their confidence and puts a spring in their step.”
Dementia is a growing health problem, with UK sufferers expected to rise from 850,000 to more than a million in six years.
The condition – an umbrella term for an ongoing decline in brain function – became the leading cause of death in Britain in 2017, ahead of heart disease.
Alzheimer’s Society research shows around a quarter of people with dementia give up exercise after being diagnosed – but initiatives like Jane’s provide a chance for them to enjoy an active life.
“We know physical activity can improve someone’s mental health and their quality of life,” says Steven McFadyen, of the society’s sport and leisure programme.
“I hope even more coaches and clubs will be spurred on to follow Jane’s lead.”
Jane, who has a background in grassroots sports development, started the classes four years ago.
She says: “I noticed there were lots of arts and music groups for dementia patients, but little in the way of exercise.”
Her weekly sessions are based on mini tennis, which uses larger, softer balls to make it easier and safer for attendees of all ages.
The classes also incorporate warm-up activities to improve coordination and balance, plus time at the end for carers to talk.
Despite losing council funding last year, volunteer Jane has managed to keep the class going.
She says: “I’d love to train other coaches and make dementia-friendly tennis part of the social care network around the country. It’s a wonderfully adaptable game.
“Dementia doesn’t stop the thrill of hitting a good shot – and it puts a smile on their face to know they’ve still got it.”
Here, other participants at the dementia-friendly tennis club, at the Community and Wellbeing Centre in Epsom, Surrey, share how the sessions have changed their lives for the better.
For Brigitte Coombe and husband Ray, 70, the sessions are an escape from the stresses of living with his challenging frontal lobe dementia.
Brigitte, 63, says: “His condition affects his behaviour and inhibitions – he thinks he is 17 again. It can be quite stressful in public.
“I feel self-conscious, even at some dementia-friendly activities.
“He’s ex-parachute regiment and physically strong, so he needs sport as an outlet.”
Brigitte had to retire from her finance manager job two years ago to care full-time for her husband of 42 years. The mum-of-two of Wallington, Sutton, adds: “We’re still fairly young and tennis is something we can enjoy together. Ray gets quite tired but stops for breaks when he wants.
“Sometimes it’s hard to accept what’s happening to him, but I feel so happy after we’ve been to tennis. No one is judgemental.”
Isobel Johnson says she gets as much out of the tennis as her husband Mike, 73, explaining: “It sounds selfish, but I think the carers need it as much as the person with dementia.
“Talk about laughter therapy. It’s such fun – a relief as well as a release. The group has a sense of camaraderie and the standard of tennis is excellent.
“There are 91-year-olds who send you all around the court.”
The 71-year-old grandmother looks after Mike full-time, with one afternoon of respite a week.
He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six years ago, just as the couple retired from South Africa to Surrey to be near their two grown-up children.
Isobel says: “His condition is quite advanced. He sleeps a lot but when I take him to tennis, he’s much more alert. He sits while people hit the ball back and forth with him. We both played in the past, I get a bit of him back for an hour. We’re so lucky to have this.”
Margit Heron joined the group with her late husband Bill, who had vascular dementia. He died aged 86 in March, but she still goes along to help keep fit.
Margit, from Banstead, says: “Bill enjoyed tennis for the chance to socialise and exercise.
“He liked the banter with other players. When he asked what he’d done that day and I told him he went to tennis, he felt a sense of accomplishment.”
Widow Elizabeth Magoris, 91, has Alzheimer’s and needs a live-in carer at her home in Surrey – but comes alive on the court.
She has attended for a couple of years, having played tennis all of her life. Jane rates her as one of the strongest players in the group.
She says: “Elizabeth is competitive and agile, whacking the ball and chasing it around the court.
“She was a bit off balance at first but soon got better. When she smiles, it’s a delight.”
Son Paul says: “She gets immense pleasure from it and it’s a good distraction.”
Source: Read Full Article