'It's horrific' - wife of dementia patient on difficulties of the disease

Pamela and John Harris

John Harris, a former Royal Navy serviceman with dementia, has been helped to walk 2,500 miles to support dementia causes. - Credit: Pamela Harris

A retired navy serviceman with dementia is fundraising for activities to help others with the condition stay stimulated, as his wife opened up about the cruelty of the disease.

John Harris has been helped to walk 2,500 miles by members of his family and staff looking after him at Julian Hospital in Norwich, wearing out his third pair of slippers in the process. 

The 86-year-old has been a Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust (NSFT) patient since the start of this year on its beach ward, in Hammerton Court, which cares for men with dementia and complexities in later life. 

John Harris, 86, has semantic dementia which affects his ability to speak.

John Harris, 86, has semantic dementia which affects his ability to speak. - Credit: Pamela Harris

Around three years ago he was diagnosed with semantic dementia, which affects a person's ability to speak. 

His wife Pamela Harris, from Wymondham, said: "Dementia is horrific.

"We moved in January and John couldn't go with me. He doesn't realise we live here and it's so sad, he loved the house and was really excited about moving. 

"He has difficulty making a sentence. Most of the time he cannot put the words together, unfortunately he can see the word but cannot say it.

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"It's very degrading and frustrating for him. Fortunately, John and I have our own language and we are on the same page.

“He has been a marathon runner all his life and started by running round the deck of his ship. He has run so many marathons, I’ve lost count."

Despite his struggles with speech, the grandfather-of-two still enjoys walking and reading the newspaper and was inspired by the efforts of the late Captain Sir Tom Moore to try and raise £1,000 by walking 1,000 miles.

War veteran Captain Tom Moore, 99, after achieving his goal of walking 100 laps of his Bedfordshire

War veteran Captain Tom Moore, 99, after achieving his goal of walking 100 laps of his Bedfordshire garden to raise money for the NHS. Picture: PA Wire/PA Images - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

In his 30-year career in the navy, Mr Harris used to run round the deck of the ship and was a marathon runner. At the age of 70 he completed his first London Marathon in just over five hours.

Mrs Harris, 70, praised the support from Julian House throughout her husband's diagnosis and said it was among the reasons why they wanted to help others living with dementia.

She said: "I am passionate about increasing mental stimulation rather than medication. I would like to buy activities with whatever money we make and donate them.

"Before he went into hospital I would give him little things to do, dry the dishes, he would help me mow the lawn. It didn't matter if he mowed the same patch 10 times.

"It's about mental stimulation, sit and read to them, let them watch something on TV, listen to music."

John Harris served in the Royal Navy for 30 years.

John Harris served in the Royal Navy for 30 years. - Credit: John Harris

The couple saw each other for the first time last week to mark Mr Harris's 86th birthday, and Mrs Harris said it was relief when he recognised his wife of 20 years.

The couple has a dog called Jack, three children and two grandchildren aged three and six. 

Mrs Harris said: "I had sleepless nights, I did not know if he was going to recognise me.

"It's going to be a very sad day when John doesn't recognise them."

To keep Mr Harris active and support his challenge, NSFT staff on the ward walked with him and on his behalf to more than double the amount of miles walked to 2,517 and £1,185.

The money will be split between beach and rose wards at the hospital, the Alzheimer's Society and the dementia cafe in Wymondham.

John Harris completing a marathon

John Harris has always been a keen marathon runner but completed the London Marathon for the first time aged 70. - Credit: Pamela Harris

Chantell Ivory, a clinical support worker on beach ward, said: “We were really touched by his kind offer and were inspired to join in. His mobility isn’t what it was when he was running marathons, so he couldn’t do it all himself, which is why staff joined in to support him."

Mrs Harris added: “I would like to thank Chantell for organising the walk, everyone who joined in and all the staff for looking after John so well. He has always wanted to help others and doing this walk has given him a real sense of purpose.”

Anyone who would like to donate can still do so by visiting nsft.uk/walkwithme