Right now, millions of Americans are serving as family caregivers for a relative with Alzheimer's disease. These individuals have become the front line in how our nation responds to this health care crisis, putting their own needs last in order to provide much needed care. And until a cure for Alzheimer's is found, that care remains absolutely essential.

Facing an extraordinary task

“An individual can't provide quality care if they are mentally and physically burnt out.”

Tending to a loved one in their time of need can be extraordinarily gratifying and fulfilling. It can also be challenging, stressful and at times, overwhelming, causing feelings of fatigue, isolation, frustration and despair.

Caregivers need to know that this is not only normal but understandable. Most family caregivers have no formal health care training; all of a sudden, they are thrust into the role and forced to deal with the many challenges and profound changes that Alzheimer's brings. Those challenges are compounded by the caregiver's other responsibilities, such as children, career and financial obligations.

Managing those stresses is critically important, both for the caregiver themselves and their loved one. An individual can't provide quality care if they are mentally and physically burnt out. But how does one find the balance?

Managing the many challenges

First, the caregiver needs to develop a team of family members and friends to help with varied responsibilities, including day to day chores or tasks, supervision, transportation and financial management. They need to identify respite care services in their area, such as adult day or home care programs, which also may be able to lend support.

Next, the caregiver cannot neglect their own health and well-being. Basic steps, like getting seven to nine hours sleep a night, eating lots of fruits and vegetables, drinking water and exercising go a long way towards reducing stress.

Also, they need to take time for themselves and stay connected with their own network of friends. Socialization, getting out of the house and taking breaks, even for only a short time, are all helpful ways to avoid caregiver burnout.

Finally, caregivers should never be afraid or unwilling to ask for help. There are many resources available to help, including the Alzheimer's Foundation of America's National Toll-Free Helpline, 866-232-8484, where caregivers can get support from licensed social workers.

Above all, take things one day at a time. Caregivers need to remain flexible and accepting, stay positive and set realistic goals. And always remember, help is only a phone call away.