Sports memorabilia — the next Alzheimer's aid?
James M. Berklan
"Take me back to the ballgame." It's not my line, nor from anyone at RiverSpring Health, although we both wish it was.
That's because the clever six-word combination describes the long-term care provider's latest great innovation poetically perfect.
RiverSpring (featuring the Hebrew Home at Riverdale in the Bronx) has been a thought and practice leader in numerous ways in the past. It's doing it again with its use of sports memorabilia to summon pleasant memories, for old and young alike.
I first learned of this clever initiative when bumping into RiverSpring CEO Dan Reingold at the LeadingAge national meeting in Indianapolis in the fall. With me was McKnight's Executive Editor and noted wordsmith John O'Connor, who coined the "Take me back to the ballgame" slogan on the spot.
Genius — both the evocative phrasing and RiverSpring's new wrinkle to eldercare.
Although Reingold is perhaps the program's No. 1 cheerleader, credit for its creation must be given to company COO and professed sports fan David V. Pomeranz.
The beauty of the sports memorabilia approach is it can be replicated by virtually any aging services provider anywhere. The pillars of RiverSpring's program are threefold: a New York Yankees dugout hangout, a New York Giants-themed therapy area, and an all-encompassing sports bar.
Each area is laden with corresponding sports photos and game-used items spanning decades.
“It's something that goes across a lot of generations and gender boundaries,” Pomeranz told me Wednesday. “It works nicely in almost any category you can think of, including for visitors, which is not why we did it, but it works in so many directions.”
Memories flood back to RiverSpring residents and their visitors. Initially, Pomeranz reached out to one of the nation's foremost sports memorabilia dealers, Brandon Steiner, who immediately embraced the idea and contributed numerous valuable Yankees-related items on consignment. Two years ago on Father's Day, the dugout experience (below) debuted.
Individuals can sit in seats from the original Yankees Stadium, touch one of its turnstiles and view bats, balls, photos and other things that were used by the likes of Mantle, Ruth, Gehrig and Jeter, among others. An audio presentation featuring well-known announcers including Phil Rizzuto and Frank Messer infuse sounds one might have heard at games in years past.
The 3-D experience is powerful. What Pomeranz and others hadn't anticipated, however, was how big the impact would be on people with dementia.
“We have people who can't tell you it's Wednesday who can tell you about Joe DiMaggio,” he explained. “I've worked here a long time and seen the effects music has had on people. It's not as dramatically or deeply, but certainly people not in touch with time and place are brought back by sports.”
The Giants football-themed gym opened in 2015 and includes a 10-yard-long piece of artificial turf from the stadium they used before moving to the Meadowlands in 1976. “One of the guidelines for people working in rehab is to walk on uneven surfaces,” Pomeranz explained, clearly pleased with the way memorabilia has been incorporated into actual resident care practices.
The area also includes a locker from the original Giants stadium, an Eli Manning helmet, footballs and other items from a team generally not known for letting such things out of their grasp. The key was Giants President, CEO and co-owner John Mara, who quickly embraced the concept and personally visited RiverSpring, Pomeranz said.
The RiverSpring sports bar opened about four months ago and includes a pool table and various photos and items related to boxing, football, baseball and many other sports.
Pomeranz and RiverSpring hosted a basketball-shooting experience with a full-sized basket at the LeadingAge conference in Indianapolis. Valuable sIgned jerseys and other memorabilia were awarded to attendees who won shooting contests. When the convention was held in Boston in 2015, Pomeranz and crew also spread the word about their developing sports memorabilia venture.
“My pitch to whoever I'm talking to is that what we're doing is not genius. It applies anywhere. What this does is create a reality anywhere you go, be it pro or college,” he explained. “Sports is part of the fabric of the whole community. Although [residents'] lives have changed and they don't live as independently as they used to, that hasn't changed their connection to sports.”
Pomeranz said he hasn't heard of any other long-term care providers taking up the concept yet, but it would seem only a matter of time as word of RiverSpring's program spreads. Entire seniors communities have already been built in association with various big-college campuses, so why not sports memorabilia collections at senior care facilities?
Providers across America in towns with any kind of allegiance to college, pro or even minor league sports could create their own niche areas, Pomeranz said — and often with the a sports entity's blessing.
“Most teams have this stuff around and often it doesn't have a lot of [practical] value,” he noted. Items don't have to be as high-profile as some of RiverSpring's famous collectibles, he added. Besides, the best mix is a items that can be touched as well as viewed from behind glass.
Appeal to owners and other top people, Pomeranz recommends. They might quickly recognize an opportunity for good public relations, among other benefits.
He's hoping that's the case with his next idea: an area devoted to Madison Square Garden, the iconic New York City arena that has hosted thousands of New York Knicks and Rangers basketball and hockey games — and much more. Rather than just sports, Pomeranz said he hopes to focus on items pertaining to concerts, political events, dog shows, tennis, the circus and countless other events held there.
Even more delightful strands in the fabric of the community from years gone by. Take them back indeed.
* Pictured above, Hebrew Home at Riverdale resident and die-hard Yankees fan Kelley Dixon stands proudly with the Yankees World Series trophy that was brought to the Hebrew Home for residents and staff to take photos with.
Follow James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.