Sweet memories: Nora Owen reaps rewards of garden planted by her husband who has dementia

IN BLOOM: Nora Owen is an ambassador for the HSE’s Dementia: Understand Together show garden at the Bloom festival, in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, May 30 to June 3.

Former justice minister Nora Owen is reaping the rewards of the grapevine planted in the ‘60s by her husband, who now has dementia, writes Margaret Jennings

THE grapevine that Brian planted when they moved into their home in 1969, a year after they got married, has flourished so much that it is “taking over” the glasshouse, five decades later.

Its drooping fruit is a reminder for former justice minister Nora Owen of her husband’s green fingers, while inside, their house in Malahide, Dublin, where they reared their three boys — now grown men — is full of his artwork.

“Brian was a lovely painter so our house is full of his paintings and every time I pass one of them, I remember him painting it,” she says.

“So there are things like that you look at, that are very much Brian — that I’m not going to move.”

After over half a century of living together — she married the boss of the company she worked for, who was 13 years her senior — there are a lot of memories.

Brian has vascular dementia, first diagnosed 12 years ago, but which has progressed to such a severe stage that he entered “a really lovely care centre” last September.

He has settled in contentedly, but Nora has been advised it’s not a good idea to bring him home to visit. At first it was lonely:

“I’ve got used to it now, but the first few months you keep going to say something or do something, and you realise Brian is not there. Or I have to sort out his clothes and you look at things and you decide there are some of them he’s never going to wear again, so you make that decision to take them down to the charity shop.”

Since Brian, now aged 86, was first diagnosed in 2007, following mini strokes (TIAs), the dementia journey that Nora has witnessed and shared with him has been a gradual letting go — typical to the condition in one sense, but unique also to her husband’s own personality and habits, as is the case with the 55,000 suffering from the disease in Ireland.

As a former high-powered politician, (justice minister, 1994-97; Fine Gael deputy leader, 1993-2001), Nora gave up politics after she lost her seat in 2002 at the age of 57. “I wanted to spend more time at home with Brian — doing a little bit of travel and going to the pictures in the afternoon and things I hadn’t been able to do, because to be honest, politics is a very selfish business in a lot of ways — your electorate gets first dibs of your time.”

Throughout her political career, however, it was he who kept the home fires burning: “He was a terrific home person and I was really lucky he was such a good dad, because when you go into politics you need to have a very supportive partner or husband.”

The skills Nora honed as a politician and her stamina and enormous energy and drive have been put to good use in various ways since then; she has always retained her individuality. Just before we talked, she had spent the morning out — as director of elections for the Fingal regions (four electoral wards) — buzzing around.

“I’m a very hands-on kind of person and I think that kind of attitude has helped me through those years from 2002 to now — I’m 74 in June,” she says. “My attitude has been that a lot of people did a lot for me when I was in public life, so if I can do a bit back; I’ll continue to do it, if I can at all because I’m blessed with energy…”

She is also blessed, she says — and “it makes it a lot easier” — that both herself and Brian have good pensions, which meant they could pay agency staff over the past few years when she had outside appointments, and more recently for Brian’s long-term care.

After Nora shared her story of her husband’s condition on the airwaves, she was invited to speak to a dementia group in the Dáil. “I decided I could have a voice for people who found it hard to express what was happening,” she says.

Having had a career in politics “where you are doing a lot of minding of people” helped her get through the trajectory of Brian’s decline in a pragmatic way, too.

But while he may now be missing from the home they shared, he is visited regularly by his family, including his four grandchildren, aged from 10 to three, who say “all right grandad”, says Nora, and hold his hand and bring him “some goodies” because he loves biscuits and sweets.

Nora is an ambassador for the HSE’s Dementia: Understand Together show garden at this year’s Bloom festival, in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, May 30 to June 3. People with dementia and their families are being encouraged to visit the 1950s-themed garden, Memories are Made of This, which aims to create a positive and enjoyable experience for people with dementia by rekindling fond memories. (See page 15)

For tips on stimulating reminiscence in your garden, visit the Dementia: Understand Together campaign website at understandtogether.ie/bloom

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