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'John's memory is bad now but he can still go for walks and things so we're lucky that way'

As a new book comes out about his life and achievements, Pat Hume discusses peacemaker husband John's dementia

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 23/11/2015

John Hume and wife Pat with former US President Bill Clinton in Londonderry last year
John Hume and wife Pat with former US President Bill Clinton in Londonderry last year
John and Pat Hume on their wedding day
John Hume with Bono and David Trimble campaigning for the Good Friday Agreement

The wife of Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume has spoken of the tough times she has experienced caring for her husband who is battling dementia.

In an emotional interview, Pat Hume - who has been married to the former SDLP leader for 55 years - described his memory as now "very bad".

She also revealed that he first became ill in the late 1990s when he was speaking at a conference in Austria. It is believed it was at that point he suffered some brain damage and has gradually deteriorated.

The wife of the 78-year-old said he now struggles to remember day-to-day events such as meeting people or if the couple have been out to eat at a restaurant. However, she said the cruel condition hasn't actually taken away all his quality of life and that his home of Derry is a "very dementia-friendly city".

"Unfortunately, John is having severe memory difficulties at the moment, he has a form of dementia," she said.

"And this started in the late 90s. John was speaking at a conference and he became very, very seriously ill. He had a ruptured intestine, very, very severe septicaemia set in."

During the illness he was on "all sorts of machinery" and his body was under severe stress.

"He had no reserves of strength left and the hospital authorities thought he wouldn't make it," she said. "Something actually went wrong with the ventilator and I think it was at that stage that he suffered some brain damage. This down through the years has got worse and his memory is now very bad."

Pat said Mr Hume, who had been training to be a priest before they met, can now forget that he has been out for meals.

"If we were out for a meal and we'd be back half an hour and I'd say it was lovely food, he would say, 'What food?' So it really is very sad."

She also said it can, at times, be hard to cope.

"It can be very tough, especially at the end of the day and somebody asks you the same question 20 times and you are given the same answers and it is very hard to get up the energy to be pleasant. So it can be tough."

But she said she is lucky to have the support of one of her daughters, who lives nearby.

"I am very blessed in that I have a daughter in Derry who is a doctor and she keeps a very good eye to him. It's great having her."

The revelations were made during an in-depth interview with Miriam O'Callaghan on RTE radio yesterday ahead of a new book entitled 'John Hume, Irish Peacemaker'. But she remains positive, saying "it could be worse".

"People love John, he can go out for a walk. Every taxi in the place will stop for him. So he is extremely lucky in that way. I can go for a walk myself, he can do his crosswords, he can enjoy the paper. So it could be worse."

But she said her husband, who in 2010 was voted 'Ireland's Greatest' would not be in a position to talk at the book launch, but will still attend it.

"He'll go to the Derry launch. He loves Derry, he loves going down to Donegal because they are very familiar to him. He doesn't like going to Dublin… and John loved Dublin and he loved Europe and America. Now he's not interested."

The chapter she has written for the book also touches on the bleak period of Bloody Sunday in 1972, when 14 people were killed by soldiers. John, she said, had tried to persuade the organisers of the march to cancel it and when they didn't listen feared his political career was over. The day before, he had been on another protest march about internment close to Magilligan beach.

"I remember he came back that evening and he was really, really depressed," she said. "He said the paratroopers were intent on doing a lot of damage. And it was a march that was arranged for the Bogside the following day from the Creggan down to the Bogside and that was Bloody Sunday and he was worried.

"What he felt was, if they could be so dreadful on a beach where there was nothing to throw, it was a sandy beach, what were they going to do on the confined streets of the Bogside? So he talked to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights' Association and he tried to dissuade them from having the march, but people were really, really emotional at that time. But he said he wouldn't participate in the march, but the march went ahead."

She added: "I remember we had a sitting room upstairs and it overlooks the route of the march and he sat in and said: 'I'm finished politically, obviously nobody listened to what I was saying'.

"The march continued on to Free Derry Corner and then we heard the shots and a lot of shots.

"There was a lot of violence before that - but after that the violence just escalated."

Pat said the power of prayer is important to her, especially during a particularly stressful period in 1987 which included their home being firebombed. She became ill and the couple went on a religious retreat.

"They were extremely difficult times. I think a lot of it was a gall bladder 'gone crazy' but I think a lot of it was stress as well," she said. "It was at that stage that we decided we needed a retreat. It was the best decision we ever made. I feel very strongly in the power of prayer."

Pat, a former teacher, lightheartedly added: "I'm not a great prayer.

"Down through the years it was coming home from work, stopping at the chapel, running in, saying, 'Hello, I'm here, I hope you are with me and cheerio'.

"I say that to my grandchildren, the older ones who are not so gospel greedy and I say to them, 'If you are passing a church and you have five minutes just nip in, say 'I'm here'. If things are going really well, say 'thank you' and if things aren't going too well, say 'Where are you? Help me'."

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