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My Nan: Adventuring to Kenya with Alzheimers at 90

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Alex Sinclair-Lack

'This is many blessing upon you', a phrase we heard many times in the small town of Diani, south of Mombasa in Kenya. We heard this phrase and variations of it nearly every time we told any local people that our nan, Doreen, who travelled with us was ninety years old. Had we told them that she also suffers from dementia then a few more blessings would have probably been due. Indeed it was a blessing. 

On the taxi to Heathrow she had a fainting episode, turning a pale shade of green and passing out for a minute. This caused doubt and fear in all of us, not least our taxi driver Anthony, who after hearing our destination turned a similar colour. If she couldn;t handle the M5 from Cornwall, how could she handle a safari? Minutes later she was back to her old self and we pushed on. We knew how much she wanted to make it, my nan, Doreen, lives alone, but has multiple carers and at least one family member visit per day.

Conversation naturally tends to be a bit repetitive, I personally get asked 'do you have a girlfriend?', 'no Nan' 'boyfriend then?', every time I visit, without fail. But the question she will be sure to ask everyone who visits: 'When are we going on holiday next?'. Doreen is not new to travelling, she raised her family in Calcutta, India, and since then she has jetted to every corner of the world. In the last ten years with family to Thailand, the Caribbean, Malaysia, Jordan and India and before that she travelled just as often alone. Whoever the company her whole life was full of adventure, right up until her late seventies she was in our local newspaper for hiking the Himalayas.

Since then her health has deteriorated, a lot. She needs either a wheel chair or a stick and an arm to hold when she walks, and she is very slow even then. She is hard to hold a conversation with and her conversational topics are all too familiar. Or so we thought until her ninetieth birthday party when she left us all in shock by reading out a speech she’d written detailing cherished memories of meeting our long passed grandfather during the war. This spurred us on and a fellowship of her grandchildren, daughters and in-laws jetted off to sub-Saharan Africa with the thought that there is life in the old gal yet. The rest of the travel was problem free, everyone we met were incredibly helpful and she was treated like the Queen.

When we arrived we stayed in an all inclusive resort: The Tiwi Armani Hotel, it might not have been the wild adventures she'd grown accustomed to in her youth but we needed somewhere stress-free and wheelchair accessible. At first, we thought that our efforts might have been in vain and it might have been all too much for her. We were having dinner on a tropical beach, eating spiced fish dishes and being served by a large number of African waiters, and she mused 'You always find a nice new spot around every corner in Penzance, don't you?'. This was met with furrowed brows, and our suspicions were confirmed when she qualified with 'oh and what lovely weather we've been having!'.

She soon settled into things with help and a lot of sun protection, we swam with her, took her to the beach and even on a mini Safari with a stay in a rustic lodge by a watering hole where she had to fend eager bush babies off her Swahili stew with her walking stick. No more confusion about being in Penzance then. By the end of the week she was a changed woman. Rarely with a smile off her face, she was much more physically capable, getting up and dressed by herself, walking without her stick and even having a little dance. More impressive even than this was her mental improvement, she was so much more aware of her surroundings, even making conversation with Anthony on the way back to Penzance who couldn't quite believe his ears and eyes. Even since we've been home she has a new vigour for life, something we haven’t seen for maybe ten years. She's got a new question to ask when I visit now: 'Where’s next?'.