Belfast Telegraph

TV presenter Claire McCollum tells of brave dad's struggle with Parkinson's

By Lisa Smyth

Journalist Claire McCollum has had the opportunity to meet some of the greatest sporting legends over the years.

Among them was Muhammad Ali, considered one of the most charismatic boxers of all time.

And while interviewing Ali was a career highlight, the mum-of-two had no idea that she would one day have something in common with one of the most famous names in the world.

Nine years ago, her dad, 77-year-old Sam McCollum, was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease - the same degenerative condition that Ali battled for decades.

It is why 44-year-old Claire is now a passionate supporter of Parkinson's UK and why she is opening up about the devastation wreaked on families affected by the condition.

Currently, there is no cure for Parkinson's disease, a condition in which parts of the brain become progressively damaged, with the three main symptoms being a tremor, slow movement and stiff and inflexible muscles.

In the case of Claire's father, signs that he had the neurological condition came in the form of slowed movement and problems with co-ordination.

"I think he just didn't feel right," said Claire, mum to 11-year-old Samuel and nine-year-old Rosa.

"His movement was slow, although not as slow as it would be now, his co-ordination just started to be not as good as it would have been.

"He'd had wonderful hand-eye co-ordination and he would have built model airplanes all his life, but we noticed that his co-ordination wasn't as good.

"He would have been sliding his feet along when he was walking, although it wasn't really pronounced.

"Mum would have noticed it the most, she was living with him, so she would have picked up on things that maybe the rest of us didn't notice," said Claire "I obviously knew about (actor) Michael J Fox and Muhammad Ali, who I had the privilege of meeting, but Parkinson's wouldn't have been in my consciousness other than that, so it was a real shock when dad was diagnosed."

Her dad Sam is now on medication to try and slow down the progression of the disease, as well as manage his symptoms.

Despite this, the effects of the Parkinson's disease are felt by Sam and his wife of 49 years, 73-year-old Margaret, on a daily basis.

Claire struggles to talk about her dad's ailing health without becoming emotional, but she is constantly inspired by her parents.

"I could sit here and say it would be better if he didn't have this, but it is what it is and dad is wonderful, he carries it so well, he's brilliant with it," said Claire.

"He's a very quiet man and what he says matters, he is wonderful and I feel most calm about everything when I'm with him.

"Mum lives with it constantly and is going through it as much as dad is, so I feel for them both. I have to keep telling myself they'll be fine.

"There's actually no point in wishing it was any other way and we're lucky that we have dad and he and mum have such a wonderful partnership."

Claire describes her parents as "a real old fashioned, lovely couple", describing how they are completely devoted to each other.

"They care for one other, dad is very much mum's rock, although mum is doing a lot of caring for dad now," she added.

"She still needs him in so many ways and he is so much help on his good days.

"They work so well as a team, on his good days, dad gets up and does breakfast for mum and he lays the table properly, he doesn't just slap the dishes down on the table.

"They get out as much as possible, although it can be more difficult on his bad days."

She added: "His movement is definitely slower and his co-ordination is definitely becoming more compromised and there would also be the Parkinson's stare that some people talk about.

"That's where the expression on the face reduces, so even when dad is happy, you might not realise it.

"The thought processes are slowing down, too, so he might be saying something and will lose what he's trying to say.

"He knows what he's trying to say, the messages are in there, but the pathways are blocked and he can't get it out.

"It's definitely frustrating and it's becoming more of an issue."

Claire said they now have to keep a closer eye on what her father is doing.

She added: "Mum would have to watch him a bit more because when he isn't feeling so good, his balance and co-ordination would suffer and he has fallen a few times, which is distressing in itself.

"During the recent heatwave, dad would have been more prone to becoming dehydrated and that stops the medication from working as well.

"He isn't able to drive anymore, but we're thankful he made that decision himself because he realised his reactions weren't as quick as they once were. It's really been about dad learning his limits and learning to adapt."

For her part, Claire does as much as she can to help and support her parents - she moved closer to her childhood home in Jordanstown, where her parents still live, so she could help more.

Parkinson's UK has also played a crucial role in supporting the family, with Sam attending exercise classes, while Margaret spends time with other spouses and carers.

"They all know they're in the same boat and I think they get strength from that," continued Claire. "You can feel alone at times, but meeting up with other people affected with Parkinson's, it's a time when they feel they can talk about it.

"This disease is horrible, it isn't nice because it can take away so much of the person. I know dad is still in there, but it has compromised his life in so many ways.

"It would be wonderful if they could find a cure, but for now, we're just living with the moment, going with whatever way the Parkinson's is going and taking each day as it comes."

Claire has pledged her support for two upcoming events to raise funds for Parkinson's UK - Causeway Coast Challenge on September 8, starting from Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge in Ballintoy, and Parkinson's Does Strictly, being hosted by Claire, on November 2 at the Stormont Hotel in east Belfast. For more information, log on to www.parkinsons.org.uk

Belfast Telegraph

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