Alzheimer's Society volunteer Chantal Clairicia explains how, following her mum Armelle's dementia diagnosis, reminiscence therapy took her family on an emotional journey to explore their roots in Guadeloupe.
Back in 2014, I started noticing signs that something wasn't quite right with my mum. Simple things like misplacing her keys and repeating the same conversations became more frequent.
But it was during a trip to New York that I realized just how serious things had become.
I saw her struggle to differentiate between London and New York, forgetting about the long flight, and her getting puzzled by the time difference broke my heart.
Getting the diagnosis
My mum had spent most of her life working in care homes and hospitals, so she knew all too well the impact of this illness, and it terrified her.
My mum is now at an advanced stage of dementia, living in a care home since after the first lockdown in 2020. But despite the challenges, I am determined to make her dreams come true.
You see, my mum still has dreams, even with dementia, and one of her biggest dreams was to return to her birthplace, Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean.
I came across reminiscence therapy, and I thought a trip down memory lane might be just what she needed.
I had many doubts, was it realistic to have an 8-hour plane journey with her? Would it be too risky? Would she even remember the trip?
But I was determined to make the impossible possible and, after witnessing a dance therapy workshop, at her care home in February 2023, where people in wheelchairs stood up to dance and sing, I felt inspired to take the leap.
Returning to mum's roots
In March, I wrote and proposed my project "Return to my Roots, a reminiscence trip" to her medical team, and to my surprise, they loved the idea. My mum was ecstatic about it.
I believed that the trip would make her feel something special, even if she wouldn't remember the details.
I knew from my training as a volunteer with Alzheimer's Society that the impact of this trip on her emotions would stay with her no matter what.
My family and friends stepped in to help, contributing both financially and logistically to make my mum's dream a reality.
Finally, in June, the day of the trip arrived, and I was anxious about the 8-hour flight to Guadeloupe. But, to my delight, everything went fine. The cabin crew were amazing, making the journey so special for my mum.
Passengers on the plane were incredibly helpful and supportive, sharing their own experiences with dementia. And, to my surprise, it was also Mother’s Day in Guadeloupe.
Throughout the 10-day trip, we felt a chain of solidarity and love everywhere we went. My mum's dementia created connections with people who understood the challenges.
Sharing stories of childhood
It was magical to see her smiling, recognizing her brothers and sisters, and sharing stories about her childhood.
She also enjoyed the taste of her favourite local food, the smell of tropical flowers and reconnected with familiar places.
We had some difficult moments, but music became our saviour, calming her down or making her dance.
Her doctor was just one call away, and the medical team stayed connected with me throughout the entire trip.
My brother and sister also managed to join us, turning it into a shared family experience that we will all cherish for the rest of our lives.
Making the impossible possible
Now, I find myself contemplating our next trip and exploring ways to help other people with dementia realise their dreams. My advice to others in similar situations is to not be afraid to try.
As my mum’s doctor told me, "if you don't try, you will never know."
Involve the medical team, your family, and friends, and don't let what may seem impossible stop you.
It's amazing what beautiful memories you can create, even in the face of dementia. We had a wonderful trip, and I now know that we can still enjoy moments and cherish memories together.
Memory loss support
Read about different approaches to therapy and memory loss support, including life story and reminiscence work.