A long walk to (a brief) freedom

Sport England’s latest initiative is to encourage the inactive to become active. CEO Jennie Price talks from personal experience about the value of organised activities, such as the Stepping Out with Carers project, to help the millions of hard-pressed carers wind down for an hour or two and simply get out and do. The Mixed Zone editor Sue Mott listens in

It is the fate of sports administrators to run the gamut from barely acknowledged to crook. We’re busy watching the action and whoever put up the goalposts is neither here nor there. It’s only when they move the goalposts or run off with the sporting silver that they are dignified with a face and a name, if only as a target for abuse.

They are certainly not appreciated as people. The job is the thing. Sepp Blatter was Fifa in the heyday of its skullduggery. Clare Connor is the ECB’s women’s cricket boss who helped mastermind the World Cup victory. They are acronyms, achievements or an accumulation of sins rather than flesh and blood. Jennie Price, CBE, CEO of Sport England, is no exception, but perhaps only because, in the thick of institutional endeavour, she rarely has cause or time to talk about the other parts of her life. Her personal life.

She did once at work. In a time reserved for a casual update among staff she briefly mentioned her mother who was in a care home with dementia. “I showed a picture and explained what had happened – just very briefly. And afterwards people came up to me to say, ‘Yes, I’m going through something similar’. Over a dozen of them. Just within a small group. With stories just as traumatic, just as painful as mine. And nobody had talked about it. As a society, we don’t talk about it.”

“We talk about disability, but perhaps we don’t talk about the profound effect on immediate carers – and the wider family.

  “My mother was diagnosed with dementia about 12 years ago but probably had the illness five years before that. I did this classic thing of pushing it away at first. I’d say things like, ‘Oh for heaven’s sake, Mum, snap out of it’. She’d always been so strong, so talented, so impressive. We’d always had a really strong relationship. So when she stopped being like that it was quite a sharp shock. I didn’t want to recognise what was happening.

“Then I got really angry because I could see she was beginning not to be my mother. Her personality was really changing. She’d always been so caring and supportive. All that disappeared. What turned it for me was the understanding of my husband. His own mother had dementia and he showed me how to communicate with her to keep a caring relationship going.

“I finally accepted what was happening and recognised that any communication was good communication. Any day we go through together was a good day. If she was unreasonable, irrational, even violent, then that as the disease, it wasn’t her. But it took me a long time to get to that point. It’s so tempting when people are constantly getting things wrong to correct them. She was constantly calling me by the wrong name or mistaking me for her mum or her sister, but I learnt just to go with it. It didn’t really matter and I look back now to those days and I really miss them. Because now she can’t talk at all or go out and I treasure those old days when we could go out together.

“Dad was amazing. He was her primary carer and I saw up close what it did to him. I never had the day-in day-out relentlessness of it, but he devoted his life to making her as comfortable as possible. He learnt what was reassuring because she was really frightened. She was angry and scared and her reasoning was increasingly disappearing. That’s quite a cocktail. Dad gave her security but at huge cost to himself. Progressively he couldn’t leave her on her own, so he gave up golfing and seeing other people. His life shrank to a few standard routines and very close friends and family.

“She went into a home eight years ago. She was sectioned so it was quite violent. The situation had worsened. She was hitting Dad sometimes, but on this occasion she had simply disappeared. Dad called the police. Mum was found but it was discovered that she had been hiding some scissors. That was enough for the authorities to say that it was not safe for her to be at home as she’d lost the power of reason. They told Dad, “We’re going to section her”. It was a really violent parting. She went in an ambulance escorted by two police cars. For a little lady like her. They took her to a local mental hospital and she was locked in. It was horrific. I was there that night. I’ll never forget the small square window that opened on her room with this little face looking out. That day, and that whole period, was brutal.

“My dad thought he’d let her down. They really did love each other and for her to be torn away from the only person who gave her a sense of security, and stuck away in a hospital where she was locked in …

“Ironically, though, it kept her safe, it got her the drugs and treatment we’d been struggling to find. It even provided the little bits and pieces of personal care that we couldn’t deliver. Daft little things like cutting her fingernails, which she wouldn’t normally let us do. She was in the hospital for about three months. Then we found a really good home and she’s been there ever since.”

There are an estimated 6.5 million carers in the UK, though they often refuse to identify themselves as such. They are looking after someone they love. It’s not a role, it is a willing participation. They may be lumped into statistics that suggest they save the economy £132 billion a year, with more than 1.3 million people providing 50-plus hours of care per week.

But for many it is an intensely personal experience. Carers UK reckon 625,000 people suffer mental and physical ill-health as a direct consequence of the stress and physical demands of caring. “Of course, many people, like my dad, who was caring in his late sixties, and all through his seventies, could be having physical challenges themselves. When Mum was living at home Dad had a really bad foot. But he was absolutely determined to refuse an operation because there was a six-month convalescence period. I think those sacrifices happen all the time.

“Mostly carers have to pick themselves up, physically and mentally, and get on with it. That’s why anything that gives them greater resilience, like walking in a group of like-minded people who understand what they’re going through, is doubly important. There’s something about being given permission just to be yourself. There are a lot of feelings involved being a carer. Frustration, depression, guilt, as well as the unconditional love. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t think sometimes, ‘For God’s sake, give me a break’.

“Dad is 86 now. He’s struggling a bit with some health issues, but he was a professional footballer with Wolverhampton Wanderers – Cliff Price – in his day so he’s fit cardio-vascular wise. And Mum, Beryl, was the energetic, powerful deputy headmistress of an enormous comprehensive school. She was a great mimic and a great speaker. A natural leader. I was an only child, so we were very, very close. I miss her a lot. It’s weird because she’s still there. I talk to her in my head a lot. I tell her things. When I got my CBE this year one of the very worst things was not being able to tell her because she would have adored it.

“People say, ‘Does she recognise you?’ And I don’t have any idea. But I know she knows I’m not just anybody. She doesn’t smile very much now and yet she always smiles when she sees me. And she holds my hand really tightly. Something’s still there.

“… Sorry,” adds the Sport England CEO because she is just very slightly crying.

Sport England are funding the Stepping Out with Carers project to provide healthy, scenic and sociable walks for carers and those they care for – read more here

Sport England’s new strategy, Towards an Active Nation, is focused on helping everyone in England, regardless of age, background or level of ability to take part in sport and physical activity. It matters because getting active isn’t just good for our physical and mental wellbeing, it can support personal, community and economic development


Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles

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