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May 2015 • Online Edition

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James Creasey Transforms Confusion ... With Croquet! | Print |  E-mail

by Susan Dugan

When reorganization – after 27 years of successfully leading a Denver publishing company – ousted James Creasey from his position, he had no idea fate was about to deliver yet another opportunity disguised as a devastating blow.


CROQUET FAN JAMES CREASEY COUNTS HIS SUCCESS IN SMILES PER HOUR. A recent convert to the sport himself, Creasey’s non-profit Jiminy Wicket uses the game of croquet to bring those living with Alzheimer’s back into the game of life.  photo by Paul Kashmann

Two weeks after the ouster, in early September 2007, his 85-year-old father was diagnosed with vascular dementia (a form of Alzheimer’s). “Embedded in every problem is a possibility,” he says. “I truly find that living that way helps me navigate a whole lot of things a lot more easily than just getting stuck in the difficulty. The problem of unemployment was the possibility of being able to spend time with him.”

For the British native and longtime U.S. resident, this meant putting his life here on hold and traveling every eight weeks to his motherland to spend two weeks with his dad at his parents’ home outside London, providing some relief for his mother as full-time caretaker, and siblings also trying to help. “I had some severance, not much, but enough to say to myself, this is what I’m going to do. I don’t know how long he’s going to be around but for as long as he is, I want to make a commitment to being completely present with him. So I took a commute across the pond into something completely unknown.”

On the plane crossing the Atlantic for his first visit with his dad, the reality of his decision set in, along with profound doubts. “I thought, I have no idea what I’m in for. I’m scared. Our relationship had been respectful, but never really warm and friendly. Your average young, white, first-world boy doesn’t necessarily have a smooth, intimate, close relationship with dad.”

Nonetheless, Creasey was determined to transform their relationship. “One of the ways I would give my mother some time off deck was that every day we would go for a walk. Sometimes he would ask funny questions like, why was the wood in the sky? What he was asking, in a childlike way, was why doesn’t the tree fall over? If you just stayed with him, instead of disparaging him, and got into what he was really asking, respecting his question, then you could talk about trees and roots and just ... talk.”

Creasey chokes up recalling his father’s admission, one day, that he was not a very good walker. “I looked at him and said, ‘Dad, I’ve waited 55 years to go on a walk with you on a Wednesday afternoon. This is perfect.’”

By the following spring, his mother was beginning to think about the annual summer vacation she always took with his father at the Nare, a posh beachside hotel in Cornwall. “My mother needed a break but they had never taken a break apart. She was his lighthouse. If he could see her, he was OK; if he couldn’t, he was anxious.” Creasey convinced his reluctant mother that he would accompany them to provide support. “I was once more outside all the confines or definitions of what I knew to be familiar and the resources I knew worked. So imagine my delight when on the first afternoon after arriving at the hotel, I took a wander to get the lay of the land and discovered a croquet court on a cliff top overlooking the western reaches of the English Channel as it merges with the Atlantic. And I thought: now I know what I’m going to do.”

Having joined the Denver Croquet Club a year earlier after becoming unexpectedly smitten with the game while playing in someone’s backyard, Creasey led his father to the croquet lawn the next morning after breakfast. He took to it instantly, and the two enjoyed croquet together from that moment on, until his father’s death in September 2009. “It made him smile. He was an international commercial real estate man. He used to do the equivalent of the New York Times crossword before lunch every day, but couldn’t put a sentence together. But when that happens, you still have the international language of smiling. It’s a social signal, a pleasure signal, more contagious than yawning. It’s very deep stuff.”

Over the course of two weeks, people staying at the hotel from all over the world joined in to play, and all went home with a commitment to buy a croquet set. Before flying back to Denver, Creasey asked his brother Andrew (who had joined them), to buy a croquet set and put it in their parents’ house. “So his children, his grandchildren, his great grandchildren would all have something to do besides sitting in silence together,” Creasey says. 

On returning to Denver, he contacted Linda Mitchell at the Colorado Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. “I told her I’d die a happy man if I could help a dozen more people like my father smile through croquet. So I started the nonprofit Jiminy Wicket with help from the Denver Croquet Club and the Alzheimer’s Association. Every Monday year-round, at the Washington Park location (west of Franklin and Mississippi Ave.) in the summer and St. John’s Lutheran Church (700 S. Franklin St.), indoors in the winter, we play croquet, 10a.m. to noon. The effect on people is predictable. Playing croquet makes you smile. We’ve developed one metric by which we measure our effectiveness: smiles per hour.”

The organization has continued to grow and recently spawned Through Hoops to Hope, now an international program for high schools, colleges, and senior communities that teams students with seniors for croquet games in Denver, Boston, and southeast England. In the 2013-14 school year, Through Hoops to Hope programs are being launched in 100 schools nationwide.

Through Hoops to Hope began when Sidney Oswald, a student at South High School approached Principal Dr. Kristin Waters with the idea, and Waters recommended she try to engage fellow students. So I showed up one day a couple weeks later and set up indoor croquet courts in the gymnasium,” Creasey says. “We had the talk about Alzheimer’s and dementia and the value of croquet and discovered that a ghastly number of those students knew someone with dementia. We talked and played croquet and a week later brought a vanload of seniors from the senior living community Park Place in to play. And for the next two hours, the students had grandparents and the seniors had grandchildren. I think we had something on the order of nineteen hundred smiles per hour that day.” 

This past June 21 in Washington Park, Jiminy Wicket, the Denver Croquet Club, and Colorado Senior Care Advisors hosted a dawn-to-dusk croquet-playing event to raise awareness and funds for the fight against Alzheimer’s. On September 20, the weekend of World Alzheimer’s Day, families, students, seniors, and celebrities will play croquet at Rockefeller Center in New York City. Simultaneously, Jiminy Wicket World Cup games will be played in Brisbane, Australia, and London, England.

So what’s so special about croquet? Although it appeals to all ages, it has special allure for those suffering from dementia, Creasey says. “We are hard-wired to hit things – either to get food or protect our people – with sticks. As our cognitive, physical, and visual acuity diminish I ask you this, is it easier to hit a moving ball or a stationary ball? If it’s stationary we have three games left. Golf is too precise and the greens aren’t flat. Pool requires a certain kind of bending over and enormous precision. But croquet uses a mallet color-coded to your ball so you don’t need to ask me quite so often, and it’s played on a flat surface. In medical jargon it provides cognitive stimulation, social engagement  and physical exercise – three things besides food and water that all of us need to thrive.” And, well, smiles.

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