‘A godsend.’ NC company reimagines eldercare at home by turning to college students
BY HANNAH KAUFMAN UNC MEDIA HUB OCTOBER 20, 2023 10:00 AM
CareYaya, founded by a UNC alum, matches families with college students interested in health careers. Raymond Williams, who is 84, was paired with UNC junior McKenna Graf, who is studying nursing. Paula Poe had just left the house and gotten into the car, and already her phone was buzzing. She sighed and switched it off. Fumbling with her keys, she backed out of the gravel driveway of her house in Hillsborough and began the morning commute to UNC-Chapel Hill. As soon as she was settled at her receptionist desk at the Alumni Association, there it was again: an insistent buzz that she knew belonged to the man she loved. She answered the phone. Raymond Williams, her partner of 26 years who had been diagnosed with dementia in 2019, wanted to know where she was. She assured him that she was coming home soon. This is how all her days at work went. Racing through her mind: Remember to email my boss about the faculty dinner on Thursday. Is Raymond OK? I need to send those letters to the Carolina Club. Did I remember to turn the stove off? He wouldn’t know what to do if there was a fire. Where’s that list of October board meetings? What if Raymond wanders outside today? Is Raymond OK? It wasn’t a sustainable situation. Williams would call and Poe would worry, then he wouldn’t call and she would worry. Poe had gone into retirement in 2020, but when Williams’ condition worsened in 2021, she had to reshape her entire plan. “He progressed so rapidly — it was so sudden for me,” Poe said. “I was like, ‘Oh, no, he’s just having a bad day’ at first, and then he began every day to not know things and be confused about how to do simple things and didn’t remember people’s names or places.” Williams’ condition wasn’t severe enough for Poe to look into nursing home options, so she sought out caregiving services to provide support for when she wasn’t there. But most local care services charged about $35 an hour — not covered by Medicare. Poe hadn’t planned to spend so much money on care when she retired. She didn’t know his condition would deteriorate so quickly. A year and a half into retirement, at 69 years old, she went back to work part time. When she wasn’t working, she was helping Williams, who is 84. He no longer knew what he liked to eat, so mealtimes became stressful. She’d cook him his favorite dinner one day and he’d hate it the next day. He couldn’t remember the last time he bathed, when to drink water, or how to use a phone to call anyone except Poe. Overwhelmed and alone, she joined a support group. “The dementia support group tells me that the caretaker often will become sick and die before the person with Alzheimer’s dementia or vascular dementia will because there’s so much on them, especially if they don’t have any help,” Poe said. But in 2022, help came in the form of UNC junior McKenna Graf.
Graf works with CareYaya, a program that matches college-age caregivers with older people for $15 an hour. Raleigh-based founder Neal Shah started the program in 2021 after his own struggles balancing work while caring for his wife, who was battling an aggressive form of cancer. CareYaya established its roots at UNC but has now expanded across the country to 15 universities. The company’s small leadership team consists of Shah, co-founder Gavry Eshet and a few others — working out of one room in a co-working space in Durham. It’s a tech-enabled, gig economy app similar to DoorDash or Uber and gives students the freedom to take shifts around their class schedules. “Right now there’s a big caregiver shortage in society and we thought: Where are there really kind and motivated people who want to be participating in the care economy, but aren’t able to?” Shah said. “And it’s college students pursuing health careers.” Poe had a few college students meet with Williams last September, and it was immediately clear that Graf was the one for him. Graf, a junior at UNC studying nursing, has straight brown hair that falls past her waist, a sweet dimpled smile and a slight Southern lilt. The hours Graf spends with Williams each week have changed everything for Poe. “I know someone I can call if I have to have someone here for a little while — and I trust her,” Poe said. “And Raymond likes her. And I like her. She knows where everything is, and she just fits in. You know, she fits in our group.” CareYaya, founded by a UNC alum, matches families with college students interested in health careers. Williams, who is 84, was paired with UNC junior McKenna Graf, who is studying nursing. Williams, a former NASCAR driver, enjoys sharing stories with Graf of that time. Daniel Masterson UNC Media Hub Williams looks forward to Graf’s visits, whether she’s bringing him his favorite biscuit from Bojangles or sitting next to him on the couch as they go through his old photo albums, losing track of time until the grandfather clock in the corner lets out a deep gong. “She’s just relaxing to be around,” Williams said. “She’s a good person, and when you’ve tended bars as long as I have, you learn to realize what people are like.” Williams has had many jobs. He’s been a bartender at a tavern on Franklin Street, an owner of a drive-through dairy shop, a builder of restaurants and houses. He even built the house that he and Poe live in, with its dark wooden walls and spiral staircase and the gazebo in the backyard where the hummingbirds come to get nectar. But most importantly, he’s been a NASCAR driver. “See, I bought a race car,” Williams said. “I stopped by Charlotte Motor Speedway one time and bought a race car. And I went to qualify in the Daytona 500.” And qualify he did. His NASCAR stories are his favorite ones to tell, and the ones he remembers most vividly, although he mixes up the occasional name or race. Graf hears about his racing adventures most days, but she doesn’t mind the repetition. “One thing that I love when I come here and hang out with Raymond is he always makes me laugh,” Graf said. “He has plenty of stories to tell about his NASCAR days. I don’t feel like I’m coming to work when I come here. It’s more like, ‘Oh, I’m just coming to hang out with Raymond.’” When they’re not telling stories on the couch, they’re watching MSNBC, doing exercises on Williams’ stationary bike or eating snacks that Graf prepares. Sometimes they hang out with the cats: Blackie, Sugar Baby, Spot and Calico, a fleet of wild-turned-domesticated creatures that scatter at the drop of a pin. The time that Graf spends with Williams and her other patients has changed the way she sees the world. “I feel like it’s made me more patient and understanding of different people in the world. I learn a lot of new things from everybody that I go and help out,” Graf said. “I’ll help them with companionship, but they’ll help me with companionship, too.”
There are 4,000 caregivers — all college students — working for CareYaya. Shah hopes that CareYaya can help erase the stigma around care work. “Somebody told me caregiving today is like what mental health was 10 years ago, where a lot of people are experiencing it but many people don’t talk about it because it’s sad and people just keep it to themselves,” Shah said. “But one in six Americans is currently caregiving for an aging parent or a spouse with serious illness or a child with special needs. That’s 53 million people.” And while Poe is only one of 53 million, finding someone to help her care for Williams has made all the difference. “McKenna has been a godsend for Paula and for me,” Williams said. “And as long as McKenna’s here, Paula doesn’t worry about me.” Now, while Poe sits at her desk shuffling through files, Williams is on the couch with Graf, shuffling through photos of him in his race car. Maybe he’s telling her the story about Bill Seifert and the Daytona 500. Maybe they’re chuckling about his rather dark Friday Hassler joke, the one she’s heard a million times but which still elicits a shocked laugh from her.
Or maybe they’re just sitting in comfortable silence, two people with completely different ways of seeing and walking through the world, brought together by an algorithm and a little bit of fate, spending hours together under the mahogany roof. Caring for each other.
UNC Media Hub is a collection of selected seniors in multiple concentrations the Hussman School of Journalism and Media working to create multimedia packages covering stories across North Carolina.
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