The night shift at age 15: Grace chooses to care for her grandmother with Parkinson's, dementia

The night shift at age 15: Grace chooses to care for her grandmother with Parkinson's, dementia

CAROLINA BEACH, NC (WECT) - A typical day for Grace Eason, 15, starts a little before noon. She sleeps in because she cares for her grandmother, Martha, late into the night.

"I stay up until three or four in the morning with her," Grace explained. "In case she has to get up and go to the bathroom, I'm there to help her. In case she wanders around."

Grace's schedule is different from most other teenagers. She is a 10th grade student in an online high school, which gives her the flexibility and choice to help her grandmother with everyday activities, which are difficult because of Parkinson's disease and dementia.

Dementia is a general term for a decline in memory, mental skills, and overall thinking abilities. Most dementia cases, 60 to 80 percent, are caused by Alzheimer's disease, according to UpToDate, but a variety of other conditions can cause dementia, including blood vessel problems from a stroke, Parkinson's disease, brain trauma, and unknown causes.

"She has days where she can walk, walk, walk," said Grace about her 81-year old grandmother. "And then other days she can't hardly get out of bed. As far as the... delusions that she has, that's almost an everyday thing."

Grace's mother, Shari, said caring for her mother is her primary burden, and she said Grace has really stepped up the plate to help.

"My mom is my responsibility," said Shari. "(Grace) is a tremendous amount of help to me. If it were just me, I don't think I could do it. It's a roller coaster ride."

Shari said Grace has the freedom to spend time with friends and relatives when she chooses to. But Grace embraces her role as a caregiver for her grandmother.

"It's teaching her responsibility," said Shari. "That's what family is supposed to be about... I encourage her, as long as it doesn't drag her down."

After waking up, Grace gives Martha medications that help treat her Parkinson's disease, which causes stiffness and difficulty with balance, coordination, and walking.

Helping Martha with everyday life is a full-time job, said Grace. A hired caregiver Monday through Friday helps the family during the day, but after 6 p.m. and into the night, Grace takes over while her parents work long days in their full-time jobs.

Weekends are split between Grace, her parents, and another hired caregiver.

"It's a 24/7 job," Grace said.

An aging population means more caregivers

Grace and her grandmother are just one story of the 'Silver Tsumani' sweeping the United States.

A baby born in 2016 is expected on average to live to the age of 79, according to data from the World Health Organization.

About 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day, according to the Pew Research Center. More than half of them will eventually need long-term care, found a 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

And who will take care of them? Assisted living facilities are a solution, but many are turning to younger, more-able family members for help.

In May, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) explored the increase in younger caregivers in a special report.

Every year in the United States, about 40 million American adults care for an older person, with one in four being a Millenial, the report said.

Grace and her grandmother

"I usually finish my school work. That's my number one priority," said Grace, who hopes to pursue a career in healthcare. "I definitely want to become something in the medical field. And taking care of her makes me have the urge to do that more."

Grace takes her grandmother's blood pressure, helps her use the bathroom with a portable toilet, gives her a shower twice a week, cooks for her, takes her on walks, out shopping, and more.

"I give her a shower, make sure she smells good, and make sure she looks presentable before she goes out in public," Grace said.

The teenager's caregiving responsibilities began about a year ago when Martha moved in with the family from an assisted living facility.

"She called my mom one day and said, I'm ready to come home,'" Grace explained. "We've had some tough days with her. As sweet as she can be is as mean as she can be."

"She was a really strong woman," said Grace about her grandmother. "She liked to have a good time... Her and her husband. Her husband passed about eight or nine years ago of cancer. So that's when things started going downhill from there."

Martha suffered from a heart attack a week after moving in with the family. And six months ago, she had an accident during the night.

"She thought two police officers were at the door. And she dreamed that she had a gun in her hand," said Grace. "She walked down these stairs, and didn't know they were there and fell, and broke three places in her shoulder. So she can't hardly move her arm because of that situation."

Despite the challengers, Grace has a mature perspective and embraces her role as a caregiver.

"If I were there one day, I would want somebody to take care of me, and I try to do it to the best of my abilities. I try to give it 100 percent when I take care of her," said Grace.

"Sometimes you have to accept reality the way it is, and that's a situation that you definitely have to accept reality. That she is getting older and she won't get better, because both of her diseases that she has, they will never be cured."

Taking care of an older family member is sometimes difficult, Grace admits. She wants others to understand the toll it can take.

"My biggest thing is criticism and judgement from people. We get a lot of that. They'll talk to her on the phone for five minutes, and say there's nothing wrong with her, but they're not here when she's hallucinating," Grace said, adding that patience is often required when helping her grandmother.

"My message is to make memories. Remember the good ones. There's going to be bad ones, but enjoy the good ones."

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