Parkinson's diagnosis has spurred me to see world while I can says Geriatric Traveller
70-year-old Kilkeel, Co Down, woman Maura Ward isn't letting either her age or a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease hold her back from travelling the world. In fact, it's quite the opposite, as Jenny Lee finds out
KILKEEL woman Maura Ward was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease at the age of 64, but rather than let the illness define her, she has used it as motivation to live life for the moment and as a catalyst "to travel and have adventures".
The 70-year-old has travelled to more than 60 countries, and they're not your typical sunny holiday destinations. Maura prefers to "travel places others don't tend to go" – Afghanistan, Iraq, Bolivia, Eritrea, Uzbekistan, Ecuador, Tibet and Burkina Faso, to name just a few.
Parkinson's is a neurodegenerative disorder in which parts of the brain become progressively damaged over many years. Affecting around 8,000 people in Ireland, its symptoms include involuntary shaking of particular parts of the body, slow movement, stiff and inflexible muscles and balance problems.
There is currently no cure for Parkinson's but there is a range of treatments to control the symptoms and maintain quality of life, including medication and changes to diet and lifestyle.
Maura first noticed a tremor in her left leg, but when her suspected trapped nerve didn't go away, a neurologist confirmed she had Parkinson's disease. While initially shocked by her diagnosis, Maura was determined not to let it hold her back and a year later did a charity sky dive.
The disease mainly affects her joints and muscles and has resulted in her using a cane at times.
"I would lose my balance easily and stepping up can be difficult," says Maura, who finds that exercise greatly improves her symptoms. "I try to go to the gym four or five times a week. I don't like it, but if I don't go my joints would seize up," she explains.
The demands of working as a social worker and raising her two children got in the way of travel for Maura, who first developed a love of solo back-packing in her 60s.
"Life begins whenever you want it to. I'd always wanted to travel when I retired and I was damned if Parkinson's was going to get in my way. Travelling has given me a completely new lease of life. Parkinson's simply made me travel a lot more often – when I still can."
And how did her doctor react to her plans to travel?
"I've known my GP for years and he is also a family friend. When I need a medical certificate he said he was quite happy to vouch for my physical fitness but he wasn't sure about my mental health," she laughs.
Passionate to share her love of travel, she has spoken to Northern Ireland school leavers and retired groups about the value of travel. A firm believer that "it's never too late to see the world", she also spreads this message through her blog and Facebook page Geriatric Traveller, and at the end of last year she was invited to speak at a Blogging Inspiration session with Libraries NI.
"I'm not very technological but it's a lovely way to document my travels and maybe inspire others," says Maura, who enjoys finding bargain flights and accommodation online.
Although she mainly travels alone, she is assisted in her planning and joined on occasions by her son Johnny, who was the first Irish person to travel to every country in the world – all 197.
Having left home 10 years ago with no money, Johnny went to Asia where he taught English in order to be able to afford to travel. He has since established a highly successful travel blog, One Step 4 Ward, and sustainable travel company Mudita Adventures.
"In Ireland, especially somewhere like Kilkeel, were are very insular and I always instilled in my children the message that there was a big world out there and it was for exploring," says his proud mum.
Her most physically demanding trip by far was climbing Japan's tallest mountain, Mount Fiji, last July to raise money for The Cure Parkinson's Trust, a charity committed to finding a cure for the disease.
While Maura's preparations were hampered when she developed a chest infection and shoulder pains a month before the trip, she was determined not to let her son, fellow travellers and, above all, the charity down.
"The first few hundred metres of the mountain was hellish. My breathing was awful, I felt dizzy, and my Parkinson's symptoms appeared with a vengeance," recalls Maura, whose efforts help raise more than £14,000.
"My son did ask me at one stage whether I wanted to go back down because I was struggling but I'm so stubborn that nothing was going to stop me from getting up that mountain.
"I don't know if I walked, ran, crawled or was carried to the summit, but I got there, and I do recall Johnny asking me to raise my poles for a photograph," says Maura, who had to be carried down the mountain in a utility vehicle and transferred by ambulance, after altitude got the better of her.
Her most emotional trip was to Syria last November, where she was struck by the stark contrast between the warm welcome she received in Damascus and the stark reality of war-torn Homs and surrounding villages "which have been ravaged and razed to the ground".
"Syria will stay with me for a very long time. On occasions I felt despair for man's complete cruelty towards his fellow man but equally I was astonished at the resilience and courage displayed by those on the receiving end," she reflects.
Is it simply curiosity that makes Maura want to visit places like North Korea, Afghanistan and Syria?
"I am very loath to pass judgment on the situation in any of war zone without seeing it for myself. You hear about these places from various media outlets but, coming from Ireland, I know there are two sides to every story."
So where else is on Maura's bucket list?
"My list gets bigger every day. I would like to see the Tiger's Nest monastery in Bhutan and the Gates of Hell in Turkmenistan. And I want to go to Ethiopia to come face to face with the hyenas on the streets in Harar and to see the churches of Lalibela."
First up, though, is a three-month trip to Thailand, which she may follow with trips to Yemen, Egypt and Bahrain.
"I also have arthritis and being in the heat helps my joints, muscles and mobility. I sat my children down at Christmas and asked if they minded that I was spending my inheritance on travelling and thankfully I have their blessing," she laughs.
While careful to take "normal precautions" during her travels, Maura says she is continuously delighted by the "unsolicited kindness" of those she meets during her travels.
"There is a book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway – and that is my motto."
:: You can follow Maura's travels at Geriatric Traveller on Facebook and Geriatrictraveller.com. To donate to Maura's Cure Parkinsons Trust fundraiser visit Gofundme.com/climbing-mount-fuji-at-70-with-Parkinsons.