Monday 17 June 2019

'Sometimes I just have to walk away' - Nora Owen on coping with her husband Brian's dementia

Nora Owen and her husband Brian.
Nora Owen and her husband Brian.

Former justice minister Nora Owen has spoken about the reality of caring for her husband who has dementia.

Nora and her husband Brian (85) celebrated 50 years of marriage this month. But the former Fine Gael politician, who was justice minister from 1994 to 1997, said Brian is now “in the grip of dementia” and needs help with tasks like showering, shaving and toilet breaks.

The former TD told last night’s Claire Byrne Live: “He is now 85 and he is now in the full grip of dementia.”

“In later years, there are personal things that begin to happen to someone with dementia. Bathroom breaks, showering, shaving, all of that begins to be a bit of a problem.”

“So you try to keep that as quiet as you can and do it yourself quietly.”

“The condition manifests itself in so many different ways… it comes and it hits people and you just have to adjust to your new life.”

Brian, a talented sketcher and painter, is unable to concentrate on his artistic world for long periods now. But he still loves the outdoors and nature, Nora said.

“There are things that you can do that can make things easier. Because people with dementia, they love the outside, they love nature.”

Nora Owen speaking in a recorded film for last night's Claire Byrne Live.
Nora Owen speaking in a recorded film for last night's Claire Byrne Live.

 “His concentration is poor so he’ll do a little bit of sketching and then he’ll  lose interest in it.”

“You are constantly adjusting your life, and it’s sad that Brian isn’t able to paint anymore, but we have his paintings all around the house.”

“It’s crucial that the carer stays as positive as possible. I have to be frank, I’m not always as positive as I should be and there are times when I maybe walk down to the other end of the house, just to stop myself getting cross.”

“Because it is frustrating if something has gone missing, something has been moved, and you know Brian has done it, and you’re trying to get him to tell you where it is and he doesn’t have a clue, and I’m finding it hard at times, and I just have to walk away.”

“If you’re not feeling 100 per cent yourself, that’s when caring for someone with dementia becomes very difficult. That’s why you hear the sad stories of the carer being unable to carry on.”

She added: “We are lucky. We both have pensions. So we can cope with paying someone for some extra help. Other people can’t.”

The former politician admitted that only in the last two years has she properly come to terms with Brian’s condition.

“I didn’t face the term dementia for many years. In fact, it’s true to say that it was probably about two years ago before I began to use that word to friends.”

“Maybe I would cover it by using words like his hearing isn’t great or he’s forgetting the words or something. But that I think is quite common for people when they get a diagnosis of dementia from their loved ones, that they are a bit worried and frightened.”

“I don’t want people looking at Brian as if he’s very odd because Brian looks the way he’s always looked, but it’s just that when they start to talk to him, people realise that there’s a sort of vagueness. He doesn’t have the words. His verbal capacity has definitely reduced, and he can’t really participate in any long term conversations.”

“Because the condition isn’t fully understood by people, I was I suppose protecting him from people looking at him and saying ‘oh he’s very odd’ or something. I wanted him to be able to enjoy life together, the two of us, just as if things went on.”

Nora, who praised a garden featuring in Bloom in the Phoenix Park - Moments in Time: Dementia Understand Together’, a multi-sensory garden for dementia sufferers, recalled how the pair first met and how she first noticed that Brian had dementia.

“I got a job in a pharmaceutical company in Swords in 1965 when I finished my science degree and Brian was my boss.”

“I got into politics. Brian stayed in the pharmaceutical industry and then sadly in 2007 Brian began to develop the symptoms of dementia.”

“His memory was definitely going. He was maybe forgetting simple household things. It wasn’t that we all forget going up the stairs – and what did we go up the stairs for. It was a little more than that.”

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