By Cathy Free Alicia Dennis
February 11, 2013 12:00 PM

Austin Mobley was just 6 when his mom, Tracy, asked if he knew the owner of a black-and-white dog running around their yard. “Mom,” he said, laughing, “that’s Daisy,” their longtime family pet. Twelve years later, Austin cooks, balances the checkbook, drives Tracy on errands from their two-bedroom apartment in Buffalo, Mo., and manages his 48-year-old mother’s medication for the dementia diagnosed when she was 36. “The hardest thing for me,” says Austin, 18, “is not knowing what an actual mom is.”

Every morning the high school senior rises at 6:30 a.m., makes sure his mom takes her meds-Namenda for dementia, Valium for paranoia, Prozac for depression-and then gets a ride to school. After school, he heads home, does his homework and gets to his other job-paying bills, picking up around the house and helping Tracy cook a dinner of spaghetti, steak or pork chops. At night, he makes sure Tracy settles under a blanket in a recliner and gives her a bedtime hug; she keeps the TV on all night because it soothes her. That’s on a good day. On a bad day, Austin worries about leaving her alone: Before going on the right meds, Tracy used to wander, once falling into a ravine; the sheriff was called and the dogs sent out. “I feel guilty I can’t be the mom he deserves,” says Tracy, who speaks lucidly about her son’s sacrifices and even cracks jokes, but forgets what she said just a moment before. “I can’t bake him cookies, I can’t drive places.”

Yet she’s accomplished what every mom hopes to do-raise a solid young person with dreams of his own. After graduation, Austin hopes to join the military or attend community college. “He told me he’d put his life on hold until I needed to go into a [nursing] home,” says Tracy, who has already lined up an assisted living facility. “I told him, ‘No, you go on with your life.’ He’s a good kid. And this has made him stronger.”