Son takes beloved mum on 18 month dream trip after Alzheimer’s diagnosis

·5-min read
The mother and son duo enjoying time together in Cape Town. (SWNS)
The mother and son duo enjoying time together in Cape Town. (SWNS)

After watching his mum slowly deteriorate following an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Sean O’Sallaigh decided to take her away for the winter to enjoy some sunshine abroad.

But having seen how much she loved their trip to Nepal and noted an improvement in her condition, he ended up taking her on a round-the-world adventure in the 18 months up until she died. 

Thanks to her son, Mary O'Neil 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 the final years of her life.

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.

"She was the best thing in my life," O’Sallaigh explains. 

"Unconditional love is a thing you don’t get often, and she always gave it, even though she had a tough life."

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Sean O'Sallaigh and his mother Mary O'Niel in Nepal. (SWNS)
Sean O'Sallaigh and his mother Mary O'Niel in Nepal. (SWNS)

As well as getting to spend precious time together, O’Sallaigh was amazed to observe his mother start walking and talking again during their first trip and he felt the adventure helped her condition.

"I thought Alzheimer's was just a decline, but when we got to Nepal she started to regain capabilities," he explains. 

"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."

Before their great adventure, O’Sallaigh was living mostly in his flat in Rome and travelling for work whilst O'Neil stayed back in Dublin where he had grown up.

He started to make frequent visits back to Ireland to care for his mother following her diagnosis with Alzheimer's in 2013, at the age of 77.

Watch: Music awakens former ballerina with Alzheimer's.

By 2016, Sean was caring for his mum four days a week as her condition slowly worsened.

"The neurologist told me positive and happy people become more so as Alzheimers progresses," he explained. 

"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."

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In 2018 the family began to discuss moving O'Neil into a care home, but Sean felt very strongly it was not right for her and instead decided to take her away from the Irish winter.

"I couldn't leave her on her own by then," he explains.

"We went to Nepal in February, and 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."

The pair celebrating Holi in Nepal. (SWNS)
The pair celebrating Holi in Nepal. (SWNS)

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O’Sallaigh says they visited Nepal 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," he explains. 

The trip was such a success that O’Sallaigh took also his mother to stay in his flat in Rome in April 2018.

"She recognised Rome because I had taken her to my apartment before," he explains. 

"There were favourite restaurants to visit and little churches she loved.

When the temperature got too hot in July, the duo stayed in a friend's house in the mountains in Umbria.

"She thought the cows and goats with bells around their necks were hilarious," O’Sallaigh says. 

Though the trip wasn't without difficulties, O’Sallaigh found a way to navigate them. 

"To avoid her the indignity of nappies, I used to put her on the toilet quite often," he explains. 

"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, O’Sallaigh needed more help to care for her and a friend stepped in.

Mary O'Niel suffers from Alzheimer's, pictured here in Cape Town. (SWNS)
Mary O'Niel suffered from Alzheimer's, pictured here in Cape Town. (SWNS)

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Five months later, they headed off on another adventure to Cape Town, and although his mother was becoming increasingly unwell, Sean did all he could to ensure she could still enjoy the trip.

"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.

"I had to put my life on hold to look after her like that, but it gave me so much too," he says of their adventure together. 

"People thought she would be a burden but she just never was.

"Every day was just so rewarding.

"She looked at you with those eyes and you knew she appreciated it all," he adds. 

"I miss her so much."

Additional reporting SWNS.

Watch: Science says singing or playing an instrument can help ward off dementia risk.