Tuesday 17 September 2019

Nora Owen on her husband of 50 years: 'It is a slow loss...I wonder how long it will be before he forgets us'

Former Justice Minister Nora Owen talks to Niamh Horan about her husband of 50 years as she loses him to dementia

Nora Owen photographed with her husband Brian in Malahide. Picture: Frank Mc Grath
Nora Owen photographed with her husband Brian in Malahide. Picture: Frank Mc Grath
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

"It's got him and it's slowly, capriciously losing him, rubbing him out so that in the end all that will be left is the whine of dementia and a hieroglyph that looks like him."

AA Gill on his father who suffered dementia

Nora Owen is eager to leave the interview. Glancing at her watch, checking her phone, she says several times: "I must go."

It's not the questions which are causing her angst. It is her husband, Brian. The couple celebrate 50 years of marriage this May, and Brian has dementia.

"It can be very lonely and very trying," she said.

A badge is pinned to her purple blazer. A token from a launch she has attended before we meet. But it's rare the former Justice Minister has time to herself.

"There is no way I could leave him for more than a half an hour on his own," she said. "That's why I must go. I wouldn't go to town without having someone with him and they are probably about to go now," she says, looking at her watch again.

At first, the signs were subtle. Nora said: "He might wonder what he went upstairs for… then there were other little things.

"I might ask him to bring a cup and saucer out to the kitchen and he wouldn't understand what I was saying. He would look at me as if I had asked him to fly to the moon."

At other times, she said: "We would have been at the shops and he would look around for a moment as if he didn't know where he was. It must be quite frightening for the person who has it - but almost more frightening for the person watching on."

Studies show it is the most feared condition of our time so Nora is not alone when she said: "I let it go because he seemed fine again and then we would carry on. It was the fear of facing it. I was in denial.

"I felt terrible because I knew there was something happening."

After a family gathering, her sister Joan, gently took her aside and told her: "You know Nora, Brian's memory is not simply normal forgetfulness. There is something happening."

Nora said: "She had seen him lost in the group. He suddenly looked as though he didn't know where he was."

Nora took him to the doctor and he was diagnosed with the same condition that affects 11 more people in Ireland every day - one in three people over 65 are diagnosed.

She said: "It has been a slow, gradual loss. I can't really remember the last time I had what you would call 'a real conversation' with Brian. Where we actually discussed something [in-depth] as opposed to me saying 'it's a lovely sunny day today' and he would agree. I was thinking the other day, it's possibly four years since he initiated a conversation."

Other signs became more apparent too.

Nora said: "I try to get him to do simple things. I remember asking him to take the clothes down and put them in the laundry basket, only to find they weren't there when I went down. I said 'Brian, where are they?' but he just stared at me blankly. I had to spend half an hour searching for them and he had tucked them under a chair, under a table, in another room."

She says it has been a difficult time and added: "I have been in tears over it a few times. It is a slow gradual loss. I wonder how long it will be before he forgets who we are. It will be so sad to see him disappear completely. A lot of him has already disappeared."

One of six children, Nora lost her father at four, which she says "probably made me less emotional… I am quite pragmatic" and was sent to a boarding school along with her five sisters.

Though it would be years until she entered politics, as a schoolgirl she had no problem using her voice against injustice.

Seeing her six-year-old sister beaten for her simple fear of a dog stays in her mind. She said: "She was getting caned and I was so angry. She was only a little girl of six who had gotten frightened by a dog running in to the chapel stairway - she still has that lifelong fear of dogs. But I remember being strong enough to challenge the nuns."

Another notable occasion saw a nun enquire if Nora was aware of any lesbian relationships forming between the schoolgirls.

Of her own experience at the school, she said: "I don't know whether I had a crush, but I was very fond of a girl who was in the class above me and we would exchange holy pictures. But we never did anything about it - but you kind of knew you'd like to see her."

Asked if there was a little bit of a crush, she said: "Yeah, I mean most of us, nearly all girls, liked to have someone in an older class, you know, 'Oh, I really like that girl' but there were never really opportunities. Maybe I am naive, maybe there were girls who found ways of cuddling and things.

"I think I was always heterosexual," she laughs, "but I didn't have lots of boyfriends".

"I remember liking one of the older girls a lot but I never remember anything transpiring. I played a lot of hockey and she was a good hockey player but I never really knew enough that it might be anything.

"I think nowadays, if you saw it happening, you would be kind of keeping an eye on your daughter of 15 if you felt that every time she was on the phone, she was on to a girl of 18 or 19. You'd probably be watching for that now."

After finishing school, she studied science at UCD and went on to work at a pharmaceutical lab where she met her future husband Brian. After some time unsuccessfully trying for a baby, they adopted a little boy Vincent only to discover Nora was several weeks pregnant.

Two stresses emerged: firstly, she was asked if she wanted to hand back the baby (she was horrified at the suggestion) and secondly, she was forced to wait until her own baby was born before she was allowed to sign the documents .

She said: "I was worrying as the months went on in case the natural mother rang to say she had decided to withdraw her approval."

Nora's worst fear wasn't realised but in recent years she came across something else that caused her upset.

She read newspaper reports that the organisation that dealt with the adoption had come under criticism for its difficult treatment of some young mothers.

Nora said: "I was very upset about it and I struggled with the question as to whether I should go back and check that his mother hadn't been coerced but then I didn't and I haven't and I won't."

Why not?

She said: "Maybe because there is nothing I can do about it now."

Nora, at 72, and a mother who benefited from the adoption process, can see beyond her own personal position and has compassion for women who want the right to access abortion in this country.

She said: "Having adopted a child and being glad that someone didn't have an abortion… I can still say I am not in another woman's shoes where I had a pregnancy that happened unexpectedly and one couldn't cope. You have to face the reality that anything up to 3-5,000 women are going to England and it's a very lonely journey."

Nora will be campaigning for repeal of the Eighth Amendment but in the meantime, is focused on Brian: "He wouldn't say 'I love you' now but if I said 'oh dammit' and he saw I had hurt myself he would ask 'Are you all right?'

"So he still cares. It's just not verbalised as such. But that's OK. I know how important I am to his life. And he is to mine."

For more information on dementia see www.understandtogether.ie or freephone 1800 341 341

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