The Golf In Society Podcast

A Sporting Life With Parkinson's Disease

August 30, 2023 Anthony Blackburn - Founder of Golf in Society Episode 3
The Golf In Society Podcast
A Sporting Life With Parkinson's Disease
Show Notes Transcript

Welcome to Episode 3 of the Golf in Society podcast! In this episode, our host and founder, Anthony Blackburn, sits down with Nigel Thornton, a longstanding ambassador for golf in society. Nigel bravely opens up about his life with Parkinson's disease and the challenges he has faced.

Join us as we explore the incredible journey of playing golf with Parkinson's disease. Nigel shares his personal experiences and the positive impact that golf has had on his life, both physically and emotionally.

In this candid conversation, they also delve into how the golf industry can make the sport more accessible to people living with Parkinson's disease. From Club houses to Customer service, they discuss the various ways in which golf clubs and courses can cater to the specific needs of those facing challenges.

Tune in to gain a deeper understanding of the power of golf as a therapeutic activity and to discover the potential for the golf industry to create a more inclusive and supportive environment for people living with Parkinson's disease. 

Don't miss this inspiring and informative episode on the Golf in Society podcast.

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Good morning, everybody. And welcome to the latest edition of the Golf in Society podcast. I have a great pleasure this morning at being in the company of Nigel Thornton. Nigel is living with a Parkinson's diagnosis. But apart from that, I want to start by saying Nigel is one of the best ambassadors any organization could ever wish to have for the work that they are doing. We first met, Nigel and I, some years ago at one of our first ever golf venue, which was in Lincoln. And Nigel was quite taken by a project and decided that he would like to step up and help out. So since we first met, we have had a great friendship. We have done some amazing things together. And it's my pleasure to have Nigel in conversation this morning, so he can share his experiences with you living with Parkinson's, and the importance of sport, for Nigel and people living with similar conditions later in life. So without further ado, Nigel, welcome. Good morning. How are you? I am very well, thank you.

I am just recovering from brain surgery, that's been [unclear 1:

15], but doing very well. Well, I am sure, we will come back to that in terms of that particular bit of surgery that you have, and the difference it's going to make to your life, going forward. But I would like to start Nigel. Because the audience may have some understanding of Parkinson's disease. But possibly not as much as we would like the audience in general society to have in terms of what it's like to be living with Parkinson's and a little bit more about the condition itself. So if you wouldn't mind just giving us a little bit of an insight into what life is like living with Parkinson's disease, Nigel? Yes, of course. I think fundamentally and Parkinson's is misunderstood by a lot of people, which is understandable. It's a very challenging condition. It's a degenerative brain disease, which gets worse over time. And what a lot of people don't know about Parkinson's is that, there's something like forty different symptoms. It's a very individual disease. And it affects people on a very individual basis. So there's some people that have symptoms around movement and stiffness. Other people might have symptoms around shaking or tremor.

Other people might have no tremor at all after having the tremors [unclear 2:

51], for example. But basically, if you have got forty different symptoms. A lot of these symptoms aren't just about movement, which is what traditionally people think about Parkinson's is about movement. And eventually very stiff and rigid. A lot of the symptoms affect your mental health. Affect your sleep, affects all areas of your life. A lot of people with Parkinson's get depression. So it's very challenging, usually. A very difficult disease. It's not easy. But you can still have a good quality of life with Parkinson's disease. I think the biggest thing, really, the biggest difficulty is the unpredictability of it. And one moment, so one hour you might be feeling pretty okay. You are taking the medication. You are medicating it and allowing it to move freely. And then your medication wears off. And suddenly you have a big drop. And you know, you are feeling really lousy and stiffen. And then doing basically simple things like walking to have a cup of tea become really, really difficult. And obviously, it's unpredictability effect your social life. You were very competent. You really like going out. But if you are going out, how you are going to feel? So that's probably the most difficult thing about Parkinson's is it's unpredictability. But what I think of people is there's three things that are recommended. One, get your medication right. It's really, really important to take the medication at the right time. To have the right medication. To have a good consultant. Not to be under medicated. Secondly, exercise. Exercise is really, really important for people with Parkinson's. Have any sort of exercise, really.

Golfing, Obviously. I am not [unclear 5:

05]. Walking. Table tennis. I did table tennis. That really helped. But just any exercise gets the blood concrete actually moving. Makes you feel better. So that's the second thing. And the third thing is just try and stay positive. Once you get into a negative state of mind. It's a very down for Parkinson's. You, despite all the difficulties, stay positive. Get out of the house and try to do thing. You will always assume that, you can still have a good quality of life with Parkinson's.

[unclear 5:

43] it's not anything. That's a fascinating insight. And thanks for those three tips at the end there for the audience. I just like to ask you a couple of questions, Nigel. That, when were you first diagnosed with Parkinson's? 2012. About 11 years ago. I was stressed out to know about that. I can't check it out. I was on medicines whole day. And my daughters tells me and sits me down."Why are you swinging your arm when you walk?" And I was tempted in a way that I wasn't swinging my right arm when I walk. And she made me aware of this. So when I got home, I did fateful Google search.

And that you came with natural tremor [unclear 6:

32]. And put the two and two together. In small handwriting getting a nonstop tremoring in it. Came up with the Parkinson's. So that was when I was first diagnosed. 2012. 2012. And you... The first few years were genuinely fine. But after about five or six years, it certainly started to, slowly get worse. That condition started to worsen. Then you mentioned when we were first chatting, Nigel. That you recently underwent some significant surgery. You just want to explain to the audience what that surgery was? And why you decided to do it? Yes. It's called Deep Brain Stimulation. And it's a major surgery, really. But it is. It involves the certain drills. It's not drills into your skull. You are asleep from certain parts of your portion.

But you are awake for a part to [unclear 7:

43]. And it's a bit scary.

But you get small holes [unclear 7:

48] drill into your skull. Small wires or electrodes are placed in your skull. They are connected to a transmitter which led into this molten activity placed in you are upset. The wires connect transmitters to the electrodes. And the circuit after breaking the temperature is turned on. And it sends electrical pulses from the transmitter in your chest to the electrode. Somehow miraculously, what happens is apparently not very scientific. But it gets your brain cells, many of which die in a different part of the brain. Which controls the movement called the substantia nigra. It gets these brain cells firing and reactivating. And I am sort of fairly lucky in that. This operation is not open to everybody who has Parkinson's. In fact, only about one in ten people with Parkinson's are actually eligible for it. And I was sort of one of the lucky ones really. But it was essential for me because I was really struggling. About six months ago, I was really very struggling. My Parkinson's in typical was very unpredictable. Evenings were really very restless. I was losing my independence. Quite reliant on my wife with a carer, particularly in the evening. So since I have had the operation, it's been fantastic. My quality of life has gone from say, a three out of ten to something like a seven or eight out of ten. I don't get any rough period. And then you will end up doing consulting separation. And my quality of life is so much better. So I am really grateful. I am really glad that they done it. Looking at about it.

And so I am gonna [unclear 9:

56]. Oh, that's fantastic, fantastic. And your positive attitude just shines through. So that's a great start to the conversation. And thank you for sharing that insights and your background since you were diagnosed with Parkinson's back in 2012. That's brilliant to share with the audience. Thank you. I would like to move on now to sport. And I just like to ask you how important sport has been in your life? But two bits really. How important was sport in your life before your diagnosis? And how important has it been since you were diagnosed back in 2012? Well, it's always been important, after all. And as you know, I am not a big brain supportive. You have all got our crosses to bear, Nigel. I loved this so much. And delighted after the season, with finally have doctors been watching the new documentary mission to Berlin. Which I have looked around to every football fan. And it changes how good they manage these companies in the documentary. But I have always loved sport.

I loved football, rugby, [unclear 11:

09] rugby. Golf, obviously. And then obviously like to, both like table tennis. So sports has always been a big factor in my life. You are right, since I have got diagnosed with Parkinson's, sports have been even more and more important. And I mean, golf, for example. It has been, well the quality of life say, is not an exaggeration. And you know, I always play golf before.

But since I had Parkinson's, just the feeling of playing golf, the feeling of picking up a [unclear 11:

45] has it a golf ball. The number of times that I felt lousy, felt stiff, felt rubbish. And they are going out to the driving range and hit a golf ball and executed a golf ball and the benefits that gives me to my body, to my health to my social life is amazing. So yeah. And then golf, for me, the health benefits, of course have been fantastic. The friendship.

Not just [unclear 12:

15] Georgia give me everything that I came, for example, working for Golf in Society.

It has been extremely rewarding working with yourself [unclear 12:

22]. Going on golfing holiday. About two years ago we have done a fantastic holiday to Greece, for example. About three years or go, I would have to go to Spain.

Because the lady hits and Monica Galton [unclear 12:

38] Charlotte Florence got to fly on National Golf Tournament. So I was able to go to Spain to watch them. That was really, really enjoyable trip. So there's not a set of punished playing golf. It's golf holidays. It's volunteer works in golfing. It's those kind of experiences. It's... well those memories will last a lifetime. So fantastic. No, absolutely, absolutely fantastic. And the one thing I need to share with the audience now is that your competitive spirit is definitely alive and well. We have played a couple of games of golf together. And to say that your will to win is alive. And kicking is probably a little bit of an understatement. Yes, that's true. You will actually...

Yes, but then again, surely [unclear 13:

33]. That's true. But I think it's an important point to mention. That because obviously there's the health benefits of playing golf. The physical activity. The cognitive stimulation and everything else. But the one thing that I have noticed for you. And Nigel since I have known you, and other people that I support living with Parkinson's is it's that reason to get out of bed on a morning. It's that sense of purpose. It's something to look forward to. And then when you get to a golf venue and you come to one of our golf sessions. It's that opportunity to do something you possibly never even thought you would do in your life. Or something that you have done and thought would never do again. So that reason to get out of bed. That sense of purpose. And then sparking that love of sport and that competitive spirit. It's a lot of things that I suppose go unrecorded and unseen. But I have noticed that with a lot of the golfers that I support, especially with Parkinson's. It's that a reason to get out of bed on a morning? Yes, absolutely. It's very easy when you have got something to do. Instead of, "No! I can't do this. I can't do that." Just you know, stay in the house. And continuously loosing self-esteem. So it's really, really important. I mean, get belief and hope. I mean, yeah, hope. Hope is really, really important. Purpose in life can be really, really important. Having something to get out of bed for really, really important. Absolutely, I totally agree with you.

And the [unclear 15:

16] it's a gold bars are fantastic. I am gonna read a story today that said that golf was actually better than Nordic Walking bay health. And I think a study in Sweden said that only people who play golf live five years longer and healthier than somebody who didn't play golf. Well, you know, the extra five years of your life. I mean, who? That's not saying that so. Well, that's a beautiful segue to the next question. I was gonna ask you, Nigel. I get a lot of golfers who have never even been to a golf club before. Let alone actually play the game. So I think about 50% of our current customers have never even been to a golf club. Which it's, that's quite rewarding for me to know that we have inspired them to give the game ago. To enjoy the benefits that golf brings. But I just like, because I mean, it's very daunting, golf. I mean, people have certain perceptions of the game. That it's exclusive. It's too latest. Too expensive. It takes four and a half hours. And all of those negative perceptions within wider society. But what I would like is, really from your perspective. Is just a couple of tips on what you would say to people who have never experienced golf before. About, you know, potentially giving it a go. What would you say to them? What would your tips be? I think the first thing I would say is it's never too late. You know, you can play golf to your potential to the nearly, that's the end of your life. So you can be 101 and still play golf.

So it's never too late. Nothing [unclear 17:

12] is golf, sunblock can be changing. But there's also lots of other things out there you can try. Indoor golf. And golf simulated. So you don't have to get ready. Don't take a cold. It tendrils. You can use a simulator. It can be great fun. You can be playing some of the world's best golfers and golf courses. If you go to Dragon Rangers. Technologies now in Dragon Rangers, it's such as the top center. You can play next and cross it.

You could download it into [unclear 17:

47] ball.

You can play on paths in [unclear 17:

50]. And short courses. There are Lots of short courses available.

But it means you know just how good the six old [unclear 18:

01] running in the market. It's fantastic.

To show up off the shoulder about 100 yards but it's just a really [unclear 18:

10]. It's great fun. It can be played by eight-year-old it can be played by eighty years old.

It's just a brilliant [unclear 18:

19]. And we need more than that. So I think, the biggest thing I would say is people have never played before. Just try it. There's nothing like the experience of hitting a golf ball in the middle of a club and see if it could go a lot further than you ever thought you could hit the ball. And then once you have done that, you hook the line. They all know that feeling of hitting a ball in the middle of a club.

And just go:

"Oh! Wow. Yeah. Wow. That's amazing." So just try it. Give it a try. And I always love that sense of achievement and that big smile. And that fist bump when that little ball goes in that little hole. And you hear that cup plunk. That seems to just spark every golfer to life. Whether they played before or not. Yeah, yeah. It's a great feeling. And let's just say you know, you might play golf. You know, all the likely might be very experienced golfer. But you know, just taking a drive 200 yards straight down the middle, holding a 20-foot putt. It's still the same thing. I still get excited about going up onto the First Tee of any golf course/ And hitting the first ball of the day. It's I still get excited about it. Just locking up the golf club.

And to play eight hole [unclear 19:

49]. I still get excited. I would never lose that Neverland. So the basic tip is try it. Yeah, absolutely. Give it a try. Superb. I would like to just get your insight really in terms of what steps you think the golf industry needs to take to make golf more accessible and welcoming to people. Like yourself with a Parkinson's diagnosis. But also to some of the other families we support who were living with a cognitive impairment. What would your ideas be on what the golf industry should be doing to make golf more accessible to audiences like yourself? The first thing is give you a call. Thank you for that plug. Well I am very serious. I mean, yeah. I think what we do is important. And I think what we have realized is how clubs need to be very bespoke in terms of the what they do for people. You know, we know for example, that people with dementia, some people with dementia, some people with Parkinson, they are perfectly capable of playing nine holes of golf. Other people might just come for a coffee and maybe turn them into putting and that's all they can really manage. But it still is just as important to the ability to... I mean, there's a barrier. It's a psychological barrier. It's physical barrier. It's social barrier. Barriers around feeling embarrassed. Or the stigma to play golf.

I think the golf industry needs to [unclear 21:

41] understand what the value are. If you don't understand what the values are, you can't then do anything about making golf life better. So I think there needs to be some detailed research about what's needed to help people with disabilities for example? What values are there? And then you believe in the stupidest thing that golf can do in order to make their own clubs.

[unclear 22:

10] exactly. The only place where you can go around and accessing golf clubhouse with a wheelchair. They put a big barrier there. They simply can't go down. It can't be. And so that has been my answer it is. I mean, to me, with Parkinson's when I bring up a golf course. And say, I would love to come and play your course. I have got Parkinson's disease. All I am asking is slot as a golfer to be inclusive of both me. It's always said to me, "Okay, that's no problem, man.""Is there anything that we can do to make your golf experience an enjoyable one?""Please tell us and we will do our best to help." That's all I am asking golfers to understand the need, the individual needs of the people like myself. I am not asking to be extra with someone Parkinson's. That's not possible. All I ask is that they are welcoming. They are inclusive. And they are aware of my potential need. So I am not sure that's the best answer I have ever given. But where I am coming from when it comes to understanding the barriers to playing golf. It's still a time problem. It's still an image problem. It's still an exclusivity problem. Really changing slowly. And I think for example, they have got to do with free taster session. What about Open Day? I don't have an open day. But people belong to an open day. Airline clubs are becoming more community hub. So it can be more open to musical.

While I haven't a dog walking [unclear 24:

22]. Or bird watching. Or open up the golf club. The Golf Club has to community coach. And do arts, or musical, or crafts, or just get people into the golf club. Once you get into the golf club. Then you start to break down the barriers. All right! The golf courses, the golf club to open to the community. And you got a lot of members who still are looking to open a golf club up to the community. And that would be my answer. No, that's brilliant insights. And as you know, Nigel, we have got twenty-three venues at the moment. And two things we always look at, we always do, as you know, we always do a mystery shop. But then we are very much looking for the right welcome, the right feel from the club. And that comes from the people at the club. And then in addition to that, we are looking at the facilities and the accessibility, the opportunities available at that particular venue. And I will be honest with you. I have walked away from certain venues where I can just say that either there's not a great people fit. Or there's not a great infrastructure fit in terms of having the right facilities available for the families that we work with. To come in and enjoy a great golfing experience at the local golf club. And I always say, when I do a mystery shop or my team do a mystery shop is, walk it through the eyes of one of your customers. Whether that be someone in a wheelchair. Whether that be someone with a cognitive impairment. And just try and put yourself in their shoes and then doing the mystery shop. And I think that would be really, really insightful for my team to do. Because they think differently about how they assess the suitability of a venue. And then it may mean that we are making the right choice early on. In terms of creating a collaboration and a partnership with a venue that we know will have the potential to become the heart of that community. Which is what we are trying to do, really. So I think that putting yourself in the shoes and walking it with the eyes of your customers is really important. Absolutely, absolutely. It's something that we have learned over the years. The longer we have been doing this the more than we realize that you have got to have the right attitude. You know, inclusive. Not just about them. It's not just about the disabled toilets. It's about attitude. It's about having the right attitude and managers of golf clubs have to be service orientated. They have to be open to you. They have to be open minded. They have to be flexible. They have to be welcoming. You know, a smile goes a long way. Yeah, totally agree. And I am going to finish. Because this has been a fascinating talk. And sincere thanks for giving us such a great insight into life with Parkinson's and golf with Parkinson's. And your views on how we get more people with a similar diagnosis, given golf ago. And then some thoughts on what the industry can do to make golf more accessible to people living with Parkinson's. But I would like to finish with a real high. And we have got a bit of an exclusive for the audience. I am proud to announce that Nigel has been selected to represent his country at golf. So I can't tell you how proud I am of Nigel. But just you want to explain the audience exactly how you are going to be representing your country at the highest level? Yes, yes. But basically, I have been playing for team England against team Wales, against team Ireland, against team Scotland. In a foreign nations tournament. At the iconic Belfry cross.

The Belfry cross [unclear 28:

52] me to read erotica was played all those years ago, in October. And it's a fantastic event. Since it is to raise money for Escort Parkinson. Which is a great organization to help people with Parkinson's. Stay active in your community. And, yes, I have chosen to play. So I am going to be playing the Badminton. Which I am really looking forward to playing the iconic tennis ball. And I will be able to see the plaque. The famous Severiano Ballesteros Plaque.

Where he took advantage and vulnerable to the green eyed [unclear 29:


Of course, pledge [unclear 29:

36] to do that all the time now.

But [unclear 29:

39] day. It was virtually unheard of. So yes, I am fortunately honored to be proud to be selected to represent my country. That's fantastic. And I think that's a perfect way to finish. Because ultimately, it's just a bit of proof that it's never too late to live a new dream. Or to achieve the new thing that you never thought you would do in life. And I suppose when you were a young kid, you wanted to be the best you could at football, cricket and all the other sports. That you played and hopefully go on and represent either your club, your county, your country. But to know that you are going to be representing your country in your 60s. I just think that that's perfect proof that it's never ever too late to live a new sporting dream. Thank you very much Anthony, for those kind words. And I hope I am not going to be a hindrance. But I have offered audience to caddy for Nigel at the event. So hopefully I can be the man on his back to secure the victory for team England. So on that note, Nigel, thanks so much for your time. It's been really fascinating chatting to you. And yeah, keep good working. Good look at the Belfry. Thanks very much. And thanks for inviting.