FOR Lorna Hunter, watching her husband take to the water in a canoe brings tears to her eyes.
It’s catching a glimpse of the man she married but it also hits home how much he has changed since he was diagnosed with Dementia Pugilistica – a condition which can occur in people who have suffered multiple concussions.
“He is just struggling to follow instructions and, even though he is enjoying himself, I just see how much he has deteriorated,” she said.
Thomas, known as Tam, lives inTillicoultry near Stirling and has been taking part in a whole range of activities through the Help for Heroes northern Recovery Centre Phoenix House in Catterick, North Yorkshire.
As Tam’s full-time carer, Lorna (48) has had to watch her husband struggle with dementia as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, while knowing his memory will only get worse.
She has found that Phoenix House has not only provided Tam (51) with a new boost of confidence but has also given her much support through meeting people in a similar situation.
“It helps me recharge my batteries,” said Lorna, who met her husband in Stirling in 1990. “While Tam is doing activities, I can sit in the sunshine and chat for a couple of hours. Or I could take part too.”
Tam was a soldier in the Army for nine years and then served with the Territorial Army for 12 years. As a Physical Training Instructor, he was also part of the Army’s boxing team for many years.
“It was when he returned from Iraq that he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Lorna.
“They had to jump into bunkers at night because there were so many gas shouts so he ended up having to sleep in his uniform.
“He was in the TA at the time and continued working as a postman but for me, it was like living with Jekyll and Hyde and I did not know who I was coming home to. Eventually I said ‘you never smile anymore.’ He admitted he needed help.”
But then Lorna noticed he started forgetting things, repeating what he was saying and talking a lot about the past. It took five years until Tam was diagnosed with Dementia Pugilistica in January this year.
After looking for some much-needed support, the couple found help through Phoenix House.
“We first visited Phoenix House in March and I realised it was a great place for Tam,” added Lorna.
“It was as if my husband came back to me as he was on familiar territory with Army personnel and his whole demeanour changed. He went off to play the guitar and I just burst into tears.
“He knows he is safe here and it’s a great opportunity for him to try new activities.”
They have now spent two full weeks taking part in the Centre’s Rolling Recovery Programme, which engages veterans and serving personnel visiting Phoenix House through a variety of activities from sports to cultural events.
They are planning to return for another two weeks this summer too.
“We have done all sorts of things,” Lorna said. “Tom has been rowing, running, swimming wheelchair basketball and horse-riding and I have taken part in some of these activities too.
“We also enjoyed a day trip to Saltburn, where Tam did surfing and he has done woodwork in the art room. I have been able to just use the gym while he takes part in activities or I can do them too.”
The couple are currently trying to create a year of memories complete with lots of photographs while Tam’s health is relatively good.
“I would really encourage partners to visit Phoenix House with their wife or husband. It’s coordinated without being regimented. Partners can sit back and relax or take part in activities.”
The Centre has four-family rooms so families can stay with their loved-one and take part in as many activities as they wish.
Rob Hood, Supported Activities Manager at Phoenix House, said the Rolling Recovery Programme is vital for engaging with veterans visiting Phoenix House.
“It gives a structure to the day and means that there is always something to do. We try to engage the guys in all sorts of ways from sports to cultural events so they have a wide range of activities from swimming and cinema trips to days out to museums or walks in the Yorkshire Dales.
“We have also just recently launched a weekly arts programme, where the guys can try different forms of dance, stage make-up, creative writing and singing. In addition, we hold music sessions and we have an art room where volunteers help veterans and serving personnel with painting as well as woodwork.”
“We are always looking out for more places to take veterans and serving personnel on days out as well as people willing to come to the centre to offer their time to teach new skills.”
Anyone who served in the Army, Royal Navy, Royal Marines or Royal Air Force who needs the help of Phoenix House Recovery Centre can self-refer by calling 01748 834148. For more information about Help for Heroes, please visit www.helpforheroes.org.uk