Kris McCabe opens up about her journey to becoming a caregiver to her grandma.
March 6, 2017 was a banner day for Kris McCabe. It was also a pretty special day for Mary Padovani. That was the day that Mary moved in with Kris so that Kris could become her full-time caregiver. And they’ve been together ever since.
Here’s why their living situation is unique, though: Kris is not only the caregiver, she is actually Mary’s granddaughter too. She was 29 years old and working as a bartender and an assistant manager at a portrait studio when Mary moved into her apartment in downtown Chicago.
But it was the absolute right thing to do, says Kris, who is now 35. “This has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” she says. “It has given me a purpose that is greater than any job or anything else that I had done prior to this.”
The Road To Caregiving
So you may be wondering how a millennial became a live-in caregiver for her grandmother. It wasn’t the original plan, to be honest.
After Mary had a stroke in 2007, it kicked off a series of moves. Over the years, she lived with both of Kris’ elder sisters and their families, as well as her mother. Each situation worked well for a while…until it didn’t. In 2016, she was living with Kacie, her middle sister, in her home in Chicago, when Mary became increasingly confused and her behavior became more erratic. After she wandered outside barefoot in the snow and refused to come in from the cold, the family knew things had to change.
Mary was placed on a memory care floor in the hospital to get evaluated. She underwent testing and observation for a couple of months, and at the end of that time period, the family learned that Mary had dementia as a result of Alzheimer's disease.
“It was up to all of us to decide what to do from there. My mom did have medical power of attorney, but we are a family, so as a family, we decided together that 24-hour care would be what was best for Grandma,” says Kris. “So, at that point, a nursing home seemed like the best option.”
In January 2017, Mary moved into a state facility.
“After the first month, I went to see her there every day, since she was only about ten minutes from my apartment,” says Kris. “I’d stop in randomly to see if she was happy and content. And she wasn’t. She was miserable. She went from being high-energy to being depressed and quiet. And what was the big red flag was that she also had lost a lot of weight. She lost 20 pounds in a short period of time. So I knew that something had to be done.”
Kris had always had a special affinity for her grandma, her fellow free spirit. She had even lived with her grandma for a while after she graduated from college, and they had grown even closer.
“My grandma and I are literally two peas in a pod,” she says. “We’ve had the same kind of mentality and mindset my whole life. We’ve had this unspoken connection. My sisters always said I was her favorite because it was so obvious.”
While nursing homes can be incredibly helpful for people who don't have the resources for a full-time caregiver, it wasn't working Kris' grandma. Every time Kris dropped by the nursing home, it broke her heart to see that she was still so unhappy. “She even said, ‘I want to go live with Kristin,’” Kris recalls. “She’d been basically begging everyone to let her live with me, but it didn’t seem like a good idea because of where I was in my life.”
Leaving Mary in the nursing home didn’t seem like a good idea, either. Kris realized that she needed to do something. And when her roommate moved out—vacating the second bedroom in her apartment—the solution became clear.
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Making the Choice
Kris sat down with her sisters and her mom and told them about her idea. She wanted Mary to move in with her. She told them about her concerns that Mary seemed to be declining rapidly. She had room in her apartment, and she couldn’t bear to leave Mary in the nursing home any longer. Knowing everything that had already happened, her family supported her in her decision.
“They all said, ‘What’s the worst that could happen? Let’s give it a go,’” Kris says. “Everyone else had tried.”
And Kris got to deliver the good news to Mary. “I went to the nursing home that day, and I couldn’t contain my excitement because I just wanted her to feel that happiness,” Kris says. “I walked into her room and did my little tip-toe thing and said, ‘Hey, Granny! I have some really good news for you. What’s the one thing that you want more than anything?’ And she said, ‘To live with you.’ I said, ‘Your dreams are coming true.’ And she said, ‘Can we go now?’ She was ready to go with me right then.”
Kris and her mom notified the nursing home administrators that they intended to withdraw Mary from the home. The nursing home leaders and doctors expressed their doubts about the plan, but the decision had been made.
Soon afterward, Kacie picked Mary up from the nursing home and brought her to Kris’ apartment. Kris had fixed up the second bedroom with new purple bedding for the bed and family photos on the walls to make Mary feel at home. Mary’s beloved 14-year-old Yorkie, Chance, was there to greet her too.
Since that significant day, Kris and Mary have been a team. They’ve had to move a couple of times, and as Kris has learned all about becoming a caregiver to an elderly person with dementia, she’s had to make a few adjustments. She’s put special locks on the doors so Mary can’t get out by herself. She’s joined an online support community to connect with others who are navigating a similar type of role. She’s learned about hospice care for the future.
“And I call her ‘Mary’ to her face nowadays because that is how she best responds,” says Kris. “She knows herself as Mary. I do still throw in ‘I love you, Grandma’ in there every once in a while for my own.”
Kris' Advice for Future Caregivers
Kris doesn’t regret the decision to become Mary’s caregiver at all. She’s glad that she was able to offer her grandmother a home and the care that she needs.
She has some advice for others who may be wondering if they should have a conversation with their own family members about a loved one who needs or may need a caregiver in the future. Everyone—if they’re lucky—gets old, and she suggests that you don’t wait to begin discussing caregiving plans with your loved ones.
“It’s never too early to start the conversation about care,” she says. “In this day and age, you never know what’s to come. Find out what your loved one wants.”