David Thornton, an ambassador for "Golf in Society", details how the social enterprise was set up and why it is so important to the families that it supports.
A famous ex-Prime Minister once said, “There is no such thing as society.”
Despite the brain fog that sometimes descends with having Parkinson’s I can still vividly remember my father’s reaction when he heard the radio news report-as a committed Methodist he was not impressed.
I suspect the CEO of social enterprise “Golf in Society”, Anthony Blackburn, would also take issue with such a statement. Started in 2016 after the death of his sport-mad father the term “society” is non-negotiable for Blackburn.
I looked up some synonyms for “society”: community, company, culture, club… they sum up the ethos of his organisation which aims to use the physical, mental and social benefits of golf to transform the lives of people living with long-term challenging health conditions such as:
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Mental health issues such as depression or loneliness
Like most good ideas the concept is simple: partner with existing golf venues and deliver weekly golf sessions for older people who are struggling with a difficult diagnosis. Whilst they are out in the fresh air, “Golf in Society” volunteers provide tea and coffee and support the unpaid carers who benefit from vital regular and reliable respite breaks. The break enables them to meet other carers, share experiences and form a mutually supportive community.
"Golf in Society” say that they “transform lives.” A pretty bold claim-how do you transform the life of a 70-year-old with a degenerative disease and their exhausted carer?
At this point (I've already hinted) I will declare an interest. I have done some voluntary work for them. I have seen for myself some remarkable things happen when a person clearly struggling with life arrives for a golf session with GIS, picks up a golf club and for the next two hours is almost a different person. The golf club becomes their “happy place” and they re-connect with people again.
IIt's not just me. Independent research carried out by the highly respected Sheffield Hallam University is impressive.It showed that 100% of participants felt that their quality of life had improved as a result of the programme.
It wasn’t all roses in the garden at first. There were quite a few doubters in the golf establishment. People with dementia playing golf? They’ll just get confused and run away or get frustrated and wreck the pro shop. Golfers with Parkinson's? Talk about slow play, imagine being stuck behind a couple of PD golfers, it'll take 5 hours for 9 holes!
There aren’t many doubters around now. Blackburn has developed a tried and tested approach that works, largely because it is designed in consultation with carers/families. However, although “Golf in Society” is becoming increasingly well known in the golfing industry and attracting interest from the health and other sectors there are still people who don’t really understand the concept and think they are just another type of “golfing society.” Blackburn has thought of changing the name but decided not to, he is passionate about the “society” element and that golf clubs should be at the heart of the community, inclusive and welcoming to all whatever their age or ability.
What people need to “get” is that “Golf in Society” is a business and charges for its services. However, it has a singular “mission” to improve the lives of vulnerable and chronically ill people (and also their carers) and to support people to live happy, healthy and active lives for as long as possible. Golf just happens to underpin this mission.
Blackburn has a vision of what later life living should be like: happy, healthy and active with plenty of green space and sport a prominent feature. Most of us would agree that his vision and drive to do something about it, is quite remarkable.
A quick glance at the statistics reveals why there is a real need for services like that provided by “Golf in Society.” There are currently 900,000 people over 65 with a dementia diagnosis in the UK. By 2050 that figure is projected to rise to 1.6 million. Many of us will be touched directly by this cruel disease.
Then think about the army of unpaid carers needed. The social care cost is eye-watering. The global pandemic only served to reinforce the disastrous consequences when vulnerable people are cut adrift from supportive networks and healthy activities.
Earlier I had described the GIS story as “remarkable.” In my view it is. Started only six years ago with an idea (golf can help people with Parkinson’s) and a blank sheet of paper. “Golf in Society” has just been awarded £150,000 by the UKRI (United Kingdom Research Institute) to develop ten new venues. Great news but, as Blackburn is well aware, scale-up investment brings its own challenges.
He has been very astute in partnering with some influential organisations such as the 59 Club (global leader in customer service analysis and training to the golf industry) and Sheffield Hallam University’s Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre.
NHS Trusts are taking an interest in “prescribing” golf as a post-operative rehabilitation option. The potential is enormous. The challenge is to grow sustainably whilst maintaining the standards of excellence revealed in the Sheffield Hallam University evaluation report.
For example, when recruiting is it always about quality and “cultural fit” or sometimes just “bums on seats?" Somehow, I think I know what his response would be.
Next week, as a follow up to this article Women & Golf will feature one of GIS's many female volunteers who are part of “Golf In Society’s” extremely professional team breaking down traditional barriers and creating opportunities for others to discover golf.
*Research was conducted by the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University
All SROI figures quoted were calculated by "Golf In Society" using their own SROI calculator.
DONATE or VOLUNTEER
If you would like to donate to “Golf in Society” you can do so on their website.
If you would like to come along to one of our sessions you are very welcome. There is a map of current and planned new venues on the website.
If you would like to volunteer for GIS – Anthony Blackburn can be contacted via email at [email protected] or mobile 07491 694938
Words by David Thornton
David Thornton plays golf to stay alive and help him fight Parkinson's. He is an ambassador for social enterprise "Golf in Society" and is passionate about many things - family, cooking, Burnley FC and the need for golf to be genuinely inclusive. David is always looking for opportunities to write more about golf - websites, course reviews, interviews, features, golf travel, blogs… You can find him at [email protected]