A son has described how his mom’s Alzheimer’s disease improved as he took her traveling across the world in her final years.
44-year-old Sean O’Sallaigh initially just decided to take his mom Mary to Nepal to escape the harsh Irish winter. He was amazed when she started walking and talking again during their trip—even learning new words. So he decided to keep traveling with her for the next 18 months.
Mary got to enjoy a festival of color in the Himalayas, roam across mountains in Italy, and feel the sand beneath her feet at the tip of South Africa in her final years.
For Sean, it was the least he could do for the mother he loved so much—who had always given to others throughout her life.
He said: “She was the best thing in my life. Unconditional love is a thing you don’t get often, and she always gave it, even though she had a tough life.
“I thought Alzheimer’s was just a decline, but when we got to Nepal she started to regain capabilities. I couldn’t understand it and the doctor there told me it was all the new stimulation. Everyone wanted to talk to her and she loved it.”
Before their big adventure, Sean was living mostly in his apartment in Rome and traveling for work while Mary stayed back in Dublin where Sean had grown up.
He started to make more frequent visits back to Ireland to care for Mary following her diagnosis with Alzheimer’s back in 2013, when she was 77 years old.
With Mary’s condition slowly worsening over the years, her neurologist told the shocked and heartbroken family not to fear, telling Sean that “positive and happy people become more so as Alzheimer’s progresses.” In Mary’s case, he was right.
When the family began to discuss moving Mary into a care home by 2018, though, Sean felt very strongly it was not right for her. And that’s how the mother and son duo ended up in Nepal in February.
“It was warm and she was able to go out so much,” said Sean. “We would walk by this lake and watch the children playing. They would come and sit with us at cafes and talk to her all the time and she to them.
“I would take her hair brush out with us and the children would brush her hair. They called her Grandma, and she would say ‘namaste’ to everyone. We were there during a festival called ‘Happy Holi’, where they throw colored powder up in the air. They asked me if they could throw some over her and she loved it.”
Then the pair went off to his apartment in Rome. There were favourite restaurants to visit and little churches she loved. And once the Italian capital got too hot? They moved to a pal’s house in the mountains of Umbria—where Mary found the cows and goats with bells around their necks “hilarious.”
“Everyone she met in Italy talked to her and wanted to give her a kiss,” says Sean, “she loved it.”
Then, when they moved to South Africa, Sean had a carer named Gloria help out. “She used to put Mom’s hair in lovely little plaits which she loved,” he says. Mary passed away there of a chest infection, at the age of 83, in May 2019.
“I had to put my life on hold to look after her like that, but it gave me so much too,” Sean says. “People thought she would be a burden but she just never was. We had a really difficult time when I was young, and we only got through it because we had such an amazing mother.”
“When I would put her into bed at night sometimes she would say, ‘you are good’ or ‘I love you’, and that was enough for me.”