When Friday night comes around, many millennials are anxious to swap their cubicles for a seat at the bar. But some don't have that flexibility. After she finishes her customer support job with Apple, Shantiana Smith heads to her second job at her two-bedroom apartment in North Austin.
Unconventional is pretty standard for the 32-year-old, who lives with one of her Texas State sorority sisters and shares a bed with her 84-year-old grandmother, Laura. Two dogs and a cat complete the household.
"There's something about pets and people with Alzheimer's," Smith says. "Granny will be like, 'Did Poosh eat?' or like, 'Are you tired, Poosh?'"
Poosh is the nickname of her grandmother's second most loyal caregiver – a 4-year-old Shih Tzu named Titus.
It's been nearly five years since Smith started taking care of her grandmother. She's one of about 5 million informal caregivers in Texas, meaning she doesn't get paid for the 50-plus hours a week she puts in. She's also one of a growing number of millennials who are taking on the role, a changing trend in an industry mostly occupied by folks nearing 50.
Smith, who lived with her grandmother for most of her childhood, noticed something was off before her grandmother was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia among older adults.
"Between hiding silverware, forgetting to pay bills, misplacing things, forgetting conversations we had," she says, "that's when I was certain that it was either Alzheimer's or going into it."
Smith offered to take care of her grandmother for a couple weeks – or so she thought.
"The day that I went to pick Granny up, all of her stuff was with her, so I didn't even ask questions," Smith says. "It was just like, 'OK. This is what we're doing.' I didn't even know what I was getting myself into."
Smith recalls her grandmother being a strict matriarch who demanded respect. Until her retirement, Laura Smith served lunch in school cafeterias and cooked unparalleled cornbread and beef stew at home. She took care of her kids and grandkids – until Alzheimer's altered her plans.
"She's always been an independent, 'I'm going to do it myself,' go-getter type of person," Smith says. "So it was strange to watch her start to become so dependent. It's taken a while to accept that this is what it is."
Every morning, Smith pours her grandmother a bowl of Raisin Bran and brings her a glass of ice water to wash down seven pills. Smith often sweetens the deal with one or two peppermints.
Unless she's working from home, Smith's first stop before going to her office is the Thrive Social and Wellness Center at AGE of Central Texas, a daytime care program for older adults with physical needs or memory loss. Before heading out, she replenishes her grandmother's pocket of peppermints, making sure to say, "I'll be right back," but never "goodbye."
"Miss Laura," as the staff affectionately call her, is met with hugs every time she walks through the door.
"We were singing, 'Sugar pie, honey bunch' with her name in it," Holly Stoever, the assistant activity director at the center, says after a karaoke rendition of the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself."
"She was digging it!" she says.
The affection shown to her by staff isn't lost on Laura, who regularly leaves the center saying, "I'm going to miss y'all, thank you, love you."
On top of her responsibilities as a caregiver, Smith tries to find time to do things 32-year-olds tend to do – like have a social life, which she admits is "challenging."
Smith finds comfort in her circle of friends and Facebook support groups for caregivers, which she uses as an outlet to vent. Sometimes, these groups even offer solutions, like the right mix of ingredients to remove a urine stain from the carpet.
"Sometimes I'm amazed that me and Granny have made it this far and this long. It's strange not to just get up and go somewhere," Smith says. "But I knew that I couldn't completely stop my life, so I kind of added her to the equation."
In fact, she says, her grandmother has traveled more while living with her than ever before. Together, they've been to weddings, birthday parties and basketball games. And although Smith considers caregiving the hardest thing she's ever taken on, she says she couldn't miss the opportunity to reciprocate the care her grandmother gave her as a kid.
"I do what I do because I feel like I'm supposed to do it," Smith says. "The one thing that I have accepted and learned is that I am my person, but I'm also living in her world. And the more I understand her world, it helps me to better figure out what to do for myself."