How this Leyland group is helping Blackburn Rovers legend Tony Parkes live well with Alzheimer's

Blackburn Rovers legend Tony Parkes, who has Alzheimer's disease, with his daughter Natalie.
Blackburn Rovers legend Tony Parkes, who has Alzheimer's disease, with his daughter Natalie.

He coached Alan Shearer and helped manager Kenny Dalglish secure Blackburn Rovers' 1995 Premier League title win.

Tony Parkes spent 34 years at Ewood Park as a coach, player and caretaker manager. Now 70, Tony lives with Alzheimer's disease, which is stealing his memories of being "Mr Blackburn Rovers."

Natalie balances running a business with caring for both her dad and her two-year-old daughter,Elsie Mae.

Natalie balances running a business with caring for both her dad and her two-year-old daughter,Elsie Mae.

But now he's reclaiming his old identity, with the help of a Leyland support group.

His daughter and full-time carer Natalie Parkes-Thompson said: "It's tipped our life upside down. He's not my dad anymore."

The 40-year-old added: "Before his diagnosis, we pretty much lived separate lives. My dad was very independent, loved going for walks and playing golf.

Natalie, who lives in Blackburn, was on maternity leave when her father began to lose words from his vocabulary.

"He'd be talking then go silent as if he'd forgotten what he was going to say. He'd call an orange, a banana. It set off alarm bells for me. I kept thinking, 'This isn't right. Is it old age or something more?'

"But then it got worse. He found conversations hard and became even more confused, so he started withdrawing from life. The speed at which it all developed was ridiculous. It was like a flick of a switch. He changed so much in two or three days."

Growing increasingly worried, Natalie sought medical advice in January last year, kicking off what she calls a long, painful and confusing diagnosis journey. It is why she believes relatives should be given more information about the process from the beginning, adding: "You already know something's seriously wrong, so not being told what's happening just adds stress and worry. You feel like you're failing your loved one. We felt in limbo."

After failing a memory test, Tony had an MRI scan and was referred to a urologist. But the waiting list was long, and with the former footballer rapidly deteriorating, the family decided to pay for a private assessment in November.

"The urologist took one look at him and told us he had Alzheimer's," said Natalie.

"As much as the situation is hard, it was a relief because we couldn't access support or have him put on medication without that label," said Natalie.

But the Blackburn mum felt just as lost following her dad's diagnosis.

She added: "When my mum was told she had terminal cancer, support was thrown at us. But with my dad, I felt like we just had to get on with it."

Unable to afford the cost of care, Natalie left her part-time teaching job to balance running a business with caring for both her dad and two-year-old daughter, Elsie Mae.

She said: "My husband and I take it in turns to sleep on the couch so the other can get some sleep because my dad's up all night. My entire life revolves around him.

"My two-year-old lives at a million miles an hour but my dad doesn't. By the time he's put his shoes on, she's already taken her's off again. I felt torn and stressed all the time. Things were getting out of control."

That is when a friend suggested she contact The Sporting Memories Foundation, a charity that supports older people living with dementia, depression and loneliness by engaging them in social activities and helping them to recall memories of watching or playing sport.

At first, Tony was reluctant to attend the Leyland group hosted by Lancashire FA at The County Ground in Thurston Road.

"But ever since we walked into that room, we haven't looked back," said Natalie.

"It's saved my life. It's such a relaxed and friendly place, and it's helped Dad to become more independent. It's given him his life back and I can now spend time with my two-year-old. The volunteers are special people."

One of those volunteers is Keith McIntosh, group leader of the Chorley and Leyland branches.

Natalie said: "Keith took my dad out with [former Preston North End footballer] Stephen Elliott. He won't even let his own family take him out because he doesn't feel like he knows them well enough. But Sporting Memories are his family. They're his friends and they talk to him like a person."

Sporting Memories, which allows members to play golf, cricket, badminton and table tennis, is unique due to a lack of male groups, according to Natalie.

Commenting on his transformation during meetings, she said: "Usually, he's grey in colour and hunched over. But the moment he goes into the group, his shoulders relax and his colour comes back. He tells jokes, he has a glint in his eyes. He's not the teary person I see everyday."

And for the few hours that Tony is with his Sporting Memories family, Natalie added: "I have my dad back, the man I remember and grew up with."

The Leyland club meets every Monday from 11am to 12-30pm. Other meetings take place at Chorley Football Club, Victory Park in Duke Street, on Wednesdays from 1-30pm to 3pm.

For more information, contact Matt Pennington on 07715000411 or

Alternatively, there are sessions on Tuesdays from 11am to 12-30pm in the Players Lounge at Preston North End FC, Deepdale Stadium in Sir Tom Finney Way.

Contact: or 01772 693309.