Alzheimer's Foundation of America

Foundation of America

Baseball Reminiscence Program Catching On!

Baseball has a way of creating memories—trips to the ballpark with loved ones, rooting for a favorite team or player, having a catch with a parent, sibling, or child, and playing the game with friends—that last for generations. America’s national pastime is also helping families affected by dementia-related illnesses through “Baseball Memories,” a sports reminiscence program created by members of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).

Sports reminiscence programs are aimed invoking pleasant memories of the past and promoting socialization. One of the first programs began in Scotland in 2009, centered around soccer, and the concept has grown in popularity ever since.  SABR volunteers started their first baseball reminiscence program in Austin, Texas in 2015, based upon an earlier program in St. Louis.

“We use baseball as a means to create community and friendships and improve our participants’ quality of life,” said Jon Leonoudakis, who chairs SABR’s Baseball Memories national initiative “. Our goal is to create community and connection by talking baseball and help them have fun and feel good together—all of which helps enhance socialization, communication, mood, and self-esteem.”

Before the pandemic, Leonoudakis and his co-leaders organized free meetings with Alzheimer’s Los Angeles that would take individuals living with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers through the familiar structure of a baseball game, starting off with the national anthem, introducing players, and ending with everyone singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” before taking a few swings at bat. Now, SABR organizes virtual sessions for participants to engage and share stories.

“We ask attendees to bring in a piece of memorabilia and just tell us the story behind it. When we’re in person, everybody gets a baseball with 108 magical red stiches. That’s a big part of the magic,” said Leonoudakis.

Participants are encouraged to dress up in their favorite team gear’s, share artifacts, and talk about their favorite players. SABR volunteers often recount specific games or historic plays, using photos, videos, and audio clips to trigger memories and conversation. Each session is customized for the specific attendees, their interests, and the local team (if there’s one in the area). The Baseball Memories program in Cleveland took participants on a virtual tour of the Cleveland Guardians’ (formerly the Cleveland Indians) stadium, with the team providing them with hats and shirts. In Austin, the local program hosted an event at Dell Diamond, a minor-league baseball stadium, with retired major league player Ross Ohlendorf pitching to attendees.  

SABR works with care communities and nonprofits to bring free programs to communities across the country, including with the Veterans Administration. SABR currently has programs in Los Angeles, CA, Cleveland OH, Westchester County, NY, Central Texas, and Las Vegas, NV, with more programs in planning.

Caregivers, staff, and family members often rave about the benefits of the program, noting that the sessions often bring out the best in participants.

“All veterans that participate in the program show increased benefits at their level of ability,” Patrick Boyle, CTRS, MSRLS, of the South Texas Veterans Healthcare System Recreation Therapy Service wrote in a letter about their local program. “Many of our veterans look forward to this program and anticipate their visit. We believe this program allows our veterans to participate in a healthy, productive, and inclusive recreational activity which can broaden to a wider range of other opportunities.”

For the volunteers who have family members living with dementia, that’s what it is all about.

“The greatest reward we get is hearing someone talk about how their loved one brightened up and felt so much joy talking about baseball with other program participants. Baseball memories last a lifetime, and being able to bring them back, even for a brief period, is a home run,” said Leonoudakis.

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This article originally appeared in Alzheimer’s TODAY, Volume 17, Number 1, published by the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. View the entire issue by clicking here.