John & Maria Banner
John & Maria Banner

Hospice classes are lifeline for dementia sufferer and his wife

Maria knows that keeping her husband’s mind and body active will help them both cope better with the effects of his dementia. Life will never be the same, but they appreciate how precious that life is. Hospice charity ellenor helps them grasp every opportunity and enjoy every minute.

The couple, who live in Northfleet, have been coming to the hospice to attend the therapeutic groups which has enabled John to live better and reach the goals that are important to him.  This has allowed him and Maria to live the best life they can with John living with dementia.

Maria said: “We would feel quite depressed if we couldn’t join in any groups and mix with other people and exchange conversations. John attends the music group and gardening on Wednesdays, and chair exercises and arts and crafts on Thursdays. Coming to these things makes us feel so much better.

On the other days of the week John and Maria also attend activities offered by the Dementia Society.

Maria said: “We go out somewhere every single day of the week, even on Sundays – when we go for a walk along the promenade in Gravesend. If it rains, we just drive to Bluewater, walk along the mall, and go for a coffee.”

John was a teacher and, at the age of 32, became Kent’s youngest ever deputy head at a Wilmington school. He taught children from the ages of eleven to 18 and his specialist subject was chemistry. He also did an Open University Batchelor of Education degree at the age of 50, has adapted a chemistry book and written four books about Christianity.

His academic background meant it was a real blow when he then had to retire early due to health problems including throat cancer. He was officially diagnosed with

Alzheimer’s Disease in 2018, a few years after his symptoms became noticeable and after also suffering a stroke.

Maria said: “After the stroke it felt like a miracle to see him walk a few steps, but with physio and respite, he really improved.”

John notices that when he has been doing something he enjoys, one of ellenor’s activities like singing or gardening, he can form whole sentences.

He said: “That is something that’s normally quite difficult for me now. It’s so frustrating because I was made a deputy head so young at a large school with 1,200 pupils – I miss that life terribly.”

Maria came to the UK as an au pair after getting a degree in economics in her homeland, Poland. She decided to stay here and married her first husband but was later widowed. She and John, who each have two children, met at a party in 1994 and were married six years later.

The couple rely on their faith and have always been church goers, with John worshipping with the Church of England and Maria a Catholic.

“It’s very lifting,” said John.

Maria added: “Being from different faiths doesn’t stop us from praying together and respecting each other’s beliefs.”

Maria has lived in the same house near the hospice for 40 years, so remembers it being built.

She said: “I knew about the hospice care, but I didn’t know about all the Wellbeing groups. We found out about all ellenor’s services when John was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.”

John said: “We lead very busy lives. Physical exercise is very good for me, and doing the gardening helps jog my memory. I used to teach rural science and bee keeping, and we even had a hive at the school. So I remember quite a lot because I have taught about plants in the past. When I’m working with plants, I can often get out two or three sentences.”

Maria sometimes takes part in the activities with John, but often also leaves him in the safe hands of ellenor’s therapy assistants. She has also completed one of the carers’ courses offered by ellenor.

The charity offers a whole range of groups and classes for patients and their families including Bereavement and Carers Cuppas, a book club, carers’ courses, floristry, gardening, seated exercise, music and Walk and Talk.

The activities are now held at The Manor Hotel in Gravesend, while a Wellbeing Centre designed for purpose is built at the hospice in Northfleet.

Maria said: “It will be wonderful to hold the groups there once the building is ready – there will be so much space and hopefully ellenor will be able to help so many more people to lead fuller lives. When we go to bed at night, and I tuck John in we talk about what we will be doing tomorrow and it’s like we have a purpose. There’s always something to look forward to.”