By Lora Sparks
Larry Cushenberry, 74, is a retired health teacher who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease six years ago. The disease affects his posture, walk, balance, and hand movement.
Despite his ailments, Cushenberry’s is the main caregiver and legal guardian to Greg Phillips, 48, his nephew who he refers to as his son.
Throughout Cushenberry’s life, he and Phillips have always been close. Phillips’ father left at a young age, so Cushenberry was always considered a “daddy figure” to Phillips, according to Cushenberry’s daughter, Laura Harper, 46. When Phillips was 30, he and his mother moved to New York for her profession. But he found himself unhappy and it was hard for his mother to cope.
“He’s a Kentucky boy,” Larry said. “I told them to bring him on home.”
Cushenberry loved coaching, fishing and tending to his humble home in Cave City. When he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he found himself unable to perform many of the physical activities that brought him joy. Cushenberry finds himself fatigued now and struggles with everyday tasks. He is still adjusting to the toll Parkinson’s has had on his everyday life.
“I used to help the neighbors, but now the neighbors are helping me.” said Larry. “It’s kind of embarrassing.”
Harper says what we take for granted, people with Parkinson’s struggle with. She observes his decline in health. It takes him an hour to get ready now rather than 10 minutes, it’s hard for him to pour milk, and he can’t wear certain shirts because his hands won’t allow him to button them up. She says she notices his frustration in being unable to perform everyday tasks, and that makes her frustrated because she isn’t able to help.
Parkinson’s Disease is a progressive nervous system disorder that affects how the person moves, including how they speak and write, according to Medical News Today. It attacks the individual’s dopamine levels and lowers them. The disease is a terminal illness that 60,000 people are diagnosed with annually, according to Rock Steady Boxing, a nonprofit organization that caters to people with Parkinson’s disease.
Larry is a member of Rock Steady Boxing. He goes to the center three times a week because the exercises and socializing helps with the symptoms he experiences.
Harper has noticed the center’s positive affect on not only her father’s physical well-being, but on his mental state. She says that being in an environment where everyone shares similar struggles is good for morale and they are able to rely on each other for advice. The center fosters a family mentality—“I love you” fills the air and hugs are passed around upon greeting. The “fighters,” as Rock Steady calls its members, have been through illness, injuries, life changes and death together.
Cushenberry’s wife passed away from a sudden heart attack. They were inseparable and still in love until the end. They met at camp, she was a member and he was a lifeguard. After only a few months, they were married. She went to every game he ever coached, he recalled.
He still wears their wedding bands.
Cushenberry said that without Phillips, he isn’t sure what he would do. He thinks about how he would have coped with the loss of his wife without Phillips and can’t fathom it. People ask him why he would take on the taxing job of caring for someone with Down Syndrome, to which he replies: “He takes care of me as much as I take care of him.”
However, it is a 24/7 job. Cushenberry prepares their meals, does their laundry, gives Phillips his medication multiple times a day and cares for him. Phillips calls Cushenberry “Daddy” and “Dad.”
“[Their relationship] gives dad a reason to get up and go in the morning,” said Harper. “I really feel that since my mom’s gone, Greg is the reason he’s still here.”
Cushenberry and Phillips spend every day together. They wake up in the morning at around 6 a.m., prepare breakfast and read the paper. Harper may stop by throughout the day to check on the two. They take naps together, watch T.V., go to the fishing shop Harper owns, and play with the tennis balls Phillips has set up in their living room. They do everything together and Harper fears that once her father passes away, Phillips will go shortly after.
Harper and her husband are going build on to the side of Larry’s home so they will be able to move in. Legally, everything is set up for Phillips to be transferred to Harper’s care. Larry’s health hinders him and soon he won’t be able to care for Phillips. Change is coming for the family and they’re preparing.
Love as Steady as a Rock from Western Kentucky Photojournalism on Vimeo.