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'Once we start singing, the words come back': Nora Owen on caring for her husband with dementia

The former minister for justice was speaking at the Moments in Time show garden, which will be on display at the Bloom festival in Dublin’s Phoenix Park this week.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

FORMER MINISTER FOR Justice Nora Owen has been speaking about her life caring for her husband Brian, who suffers from dementia.

Owen, who served as minister between 1994 and 1997, is acting as an ambassador for Dementia: Understand Together campaign.

She’s been speaking about the campaign’s show garden, Moments in Time, which will be on display at the Bloom festival in Dublin’s Phoenix Park this week.

The dementia-friendly garden is designed to help people suffering from the condition to continue doing the things they love – its designer explained that it was intended as “a beautiful calm multi-sensory space”.

Said Owen: “I am very lucky that, apart from dementia, Brian is in very good health. Although he is 85, he is physically better than a lot of other people much younger than he is.”

Brian was diagnosed in 2010 after the couple began to notice symptoms. Owen said that people with dementia, and their carers, often have to cope with feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Dementia Friendly Garden 6 Nora pictured with her husband Brian

The former minister said it was important for the couple to keep doing activities together – noting that they had joined a Dublin-based choir, the Forget-Me-Nots, which welcomes people with dementia.

Brian was a lovely singer, he knew all the old songs – but once we start singing them, the words come back.

One in 10 people diagnosed with dementia are under 65.

Over 180,000 people in Ireland are either currently, or have been, carers for a family member or partner with dementia.

Asked whether families affected by dementia were being provided with enough support, Owen said:

“Frankly, probably not, they say that about 55,000 people in Ireland have dementia but my sense is there are more than that.

”But if there are 55,000 people then there are 100,000 or more people caring for those people with dementia – and they need to know that there are facilities available for them.

“They can get the respite grant, they can get a carer’s allowance.”

Campaigner 

After a recent interview with RTÉ Radio One’s Marian Finucane, Owen was asked to get involved with the Dementia: Understand Together campaign, which is a HSE initiative.

”I said yes I would like to help because not enough people know about dementia and talk about it. There are people suffering in silence, particularly the carers of people with dementia.”

People caring for loved ones shouldn’t suffer in silence, she said.

Don’t try and do it on your own if you’re caring for somebody. It’s hard, it’s difficult and dementia grows and people progressively go downhill. One day they’ll have a good day, someday they’ll have a bad day, it’s very tough on the carer.

She said she believed the show garden might provide couples in a similar situation with some inspiration – and suggested they might create their own dementia-friendly gardens.

”I can see the benefit the garden brings to Brian. He is able to sit out in it with the sun shining on his face and relax.

It’s so wonderful for a person with dementia and their carer to be able to get outside with a nice cup of tea and sit peacefully for a while.

Dementia Friendly Garden 9 Brian pictured with his two grandchildren Lucy, age 7 and Milo, age 9.

‘Moments in Time’

The garden on display this week was designed by Newtown Saunders Ltd, TrinityHaus and Sonas APC.

”It’s about layout, planting and making your garden accessible and also so that it’s a really beautiful calm multi-sensory space for people to be,” said Sinéad Grennan, who was part of the design team.

”The other part of the design of the garden is about raising understanding and awareness about dementia.”

Some of the main features recommended for a dementia-friendly garden are to have a layout that is easy to get around, as well as items linked with the person’s past.

The creators advise to choose plants that are well-known and stimulate fond memories, such as English lavender, Japanese maple and Ox eye daisy.

Dementia: Understand Together also recommends having a seating area to relax but also to have tools that will encourage pottering around the garden.

To make a garden more accessible and easily usable for a person with dementia, Grennan says to keep in mind the kind of difficulties that they can have.

People can have a lot of difficulty with memory, with thinking, sometimes confusion with time and place, and also sensory difficulties.

The Dementia: Understand Together website offers comprehensive resources on dementia, including a service-finder detailing county-by-county dementia supports and services.

It also has a guide to creating your own dementia-friendly garden.

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Adam Daly

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