As Sean O’Sallaigh watched his mum slowly deteriorate following an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, he decided to take her away from Ireland for the winter to enjoy some sunshine abroad.
When he saw how much she loved it, he ended up taking her on an adventure for the 18 months up until she died.
Sean, 44, says his mum Mary O’Niel started walking and talking again during their first trip and he felt it helped her condition.
Thanks to Sean, Mary got to enjoy a festival of colour in Nepal, roam across mountains in Italy, and feel the sand beneath her feet in South Africa in her final years.
Sean 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.
‘It was cold and dark and I wanted to take her somewhere nicer for winter.
‘I thought Alzheimer’s was just a decline, but when we got to Nepal she started to regain capabilities.
‘She walked more, and she talked more, she even learned new words.
‘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. I miss her so much.’
Sean had been living in Rome but when Mary was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s back in 2013 aged 77, he started making more frequent trips home to Dublin to help care for her.
Sean, who started his own travel company, Angel Tours, back in 2004, said: ‘The neurologist told me positive and happy people become more so as Alzheimers progresses.
‘He was right – mum just seemed to get younger, but remained happy.
‘I didn’t try to keep her in my world, I just let her decline into hers.
‘She would happily wipe the table for an hour, and we would just laugh about it together.
‘I gave her a doll and she would talk to it and play with it – she thought it was a real baby.
‘If she got agitated, I would bring out the baby and it would bring her out of it right away.’
By 2016, Sean was caring for his mum four days a week in the house that Mary had helped him build years before her diagnosis near Glendalough and by 2018, the family started to discuss moving her into ca care home – but Sean felt very strongly it was not right for her.
He said: ‘I couldn’t leave her on her own by then. I had nurses coming in sometimes for respite care.
‘But she had always been so independent. When I was young, she had asked my dad, who was an alcoholic and very difficult with it, to leave.
‘She did that at a time when women in Ireland just didn’t do that, and had fought to survive even though a lot of the community were very hard on her.’
While deciding what to do, he decided to take her away fro the Irish winter and headed to Nepal in February 2018.
He added: ‘I planned to come back after a couple of months.
‘It was warm and she was able to go out so much.
‘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 coloured powder up in the air.
‘They asked me if they could throw some over her and she loved it.’
Nepal was such a success that Sean took Mary to stay in his flat in Rome in April 2018.
He said: ‘She recognised Rome because I had taken her to my apartment loads before.
‘There were favourite restaurants to visit and little churches she loved.
‘We stayed in a friend’s house in the Mountains in Umbria when Rome got too hot in July.
‘She thought the cows and goats with bells around their necks were hilarious.
‘To avoid her the indignity of nappies, I used to put her on the toilet quite often.
‘I would pop her commode in the back of the car when we were going on a trip, so she would sit on the side of Italian mountain roads on her commode.
‘Everyone she met in Italy talked to her and wanted to give her a kiss, she loved it.’
After a fall in Italy in May 2018, Sean needed more help to care for her and his friend Tony stepped in.
Five months later, they headed off on another adventure to Capetown, and although Mary was increasingly unwell, Sean did all he could to ensure she could still enjoy the trip.
Sean said: ‘I hired someone called Gloria to help out – Mum got on really well with her.
‘She used to put Mum’s hair in lovely little plaits which Mum loved.
‘In January 2019, we took Mum to the beach and she enjoyed putting her toes in the sand and watching the children playing.’
Sadly, Mary became unable to walk in April 2019 and died age 83 on May 24 2019 following a chest infection.
Sean said: ‘By the end, she would sometimes call me Daddy, and I did feel like a parent.
‘When she passed away, I felt like I had lost my little girl.
‘I had to put my life on hold to look after her like that, but it gave me so much too.
‘I had to give up a relationship because I couldn’t give them both the attention they needed, and she had to be my priority just then.
‘At work, I went down to answering calls and emails for a couple of hours a day, my company really suffered.
‘Before, I was very competitive and entirely focused on the company and expected the same of my staff, but all I want now is to make enough to keep things running smoothly.’
Sean says despite the difficult moments of watching his mum’s health decline, he loved being able to spend so much time with her in her final years.
He said: ‘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.
‘I do feel terribly sad that my family didn’t see her again, but they weren’t able to help look after her, and she needed to be safe and happy.
‘You couldn’t do what I did unless it was really sincere – you couldn’t do it for any other reason than pure love.
‘It was a fountain of goodness. Every day was just so rewarding.
‘She looked at you with those eyes and you knew she appreciated it all.
‘That love from your mother is just so unconditional, and sincere.
‘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.’
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