For years, Laura Wetherington and her husband, Gary, looked forward to retirement, hoping they would finally have the time to travel and enjoy life. But in 2007, soon after the couple moved to a senior retirement community in South Carolina, Gary was diagnosed with Pick's disease, a form of dementia.

"The disease generally hits people before they are 65 years of age," Laura says. "They usually start around 54. Some people can get it at their 40s. It involves a personality change, compulsive-obsessive behavior. They lose their logic and reasoning skills."

For more than two years, Wetherington has been caring for her husband full-time. Joining a caregivers' support group, she says, helped her deal with the daily stress. It was through this group that she learned about an essay contest for caregivers.

"I thought, 'OK, I can write an essay,''" she says. "I came home, and over a period of two weeks, I kind of wrote the essay, tweaked it a little bit and sent it off and totally forgot about it. I didn't even tell anybody. Then I was notified that I won. I was so surprised. That was a wonderful blessing in the middle of a very hard time."

Wetherington's grand-prize-winning essay was about 350 words, summing up her experience taking care of her husband.

"Gary, my husband that I've been married to for 34 years, he is not the person I married, and that relation is gone," she says. "That causes some pain and heartache, and you're watching him go downhill, but yet you still love him. You're his caregiver, just trying to learn how to deal with him."

Eighty-three-year-old Evelyn Cooper was also surprised when her essay won first prize. She is also the caregiver for her husband, who has Alzheimer's. She vividly recalls the day she wrote her essay.

"It was a Saturday. My husband was acting very strange because that's part of the Alzheimer's issue," she says. "And no matter what I did, he was unhappy. So I went to my computer. I had seen this ad [for the contest]. I don't usually do things like that, but I love to write. And in 10 minutes, I wrote that to give myself a relief, emotional relief. And I sent it off. I never thought I would win anything, I just did it."

Honoring caregivers' selfless work

Cooper and Wetherington are among a dozen winners of the 2008 Give a Caregiver a Break essay contest. The annual competition was launched in 2005 by Home Instead Senior Care. The nationwide company provides services to help aging family members stay in their homes, instead of having to move to a nursing home or care facility.

"We wanted to bring awareness that family caregivers have a very stressful, very important role to play," spokeswoman Yoshino Nakajima says.

"When you look at the world today, there are four major issues," she says. "The most current one is the financial downturn throughout the world. No. 2 is global warming. No. 3 is the shortage of energy, or how to manage our energy. And I think senior care - or the rapidly growing [number of] seniors and how to help them - that is the fourth biggest challenge. Governments around the world are challenged by how to manage the finances to help them continue maintain their quality of life."

She says the essay contest winners are ordinary people who are doing extraordinary work. Despite the physical and emotional stress, they are committed to helping their aging, ailing family members.

"It's very challenging, and the worst part of it is, it never leaves your heart, especially caring for a loved one," she says. "You think about them all the time."

The precious gift of time

Winners of the annual Give a Caregiver a Break contest receive their awards not in cash, but in something more valuable to them: time off provided by professional caregivers from the Home Instead agency. Grand-prize winner Laura Wetherington received $5,000 worth of respite care, which, she says, is a welcome helping hand.

"You can get all kinds of services. You can say, 'I want someone to come and sit with him for a few hours,' or you can have someone come in all day and prepare meals," she says. "They even have nurses. By the time I won the award, my husband['s disease] was very advanced, and so I had put him in the memory care facility. So what I decided to do is, I hired a companion.

"She comes two days a week for four hours. She takes him on outings. She kind of looks out and makes sure everything is OK. She plays games with him, takes him on walks. That helps me because I don't feel so stressed."

The $2,500 worth of respite care Evelyn Cooper won gives her more time for herself.

"Yesterday, I had an aide here. And she stayed here for three hours, and I went to a concert," she says. "You just have to remember who you are and continue to have a life of your own. Even though it appears that you can't do it, you just have to do it to survive."

Professional caregivers learn from clients, too

Home Instead's professional caregivers, like Barbara Maxwell, say they are not just providing a service, but creating a relationship.

"First, I try to establish trust so that the client feels like I'm not going to come in and boss them around and take over," she says. "Then, I believe, that's when the relationship can be developed, and sometimes that can be slow. I have been able to really develop some very close relationships with my clients. I just go in to a client, try to get to know the person as they are today."

Maxwell was recently named Home Instead's Caregiver of the Year. She says, though stressful and tiring, her job is very rewarding. It helps her look at life from a different perspective and even learn from her clients.

"One of my clients was an Army veteran who was involved in World War II," she says. "He loved talking about it to me. He actually had me read a couple of books related to the subject. And as I was reading, he would stop me and say, 'Oh, Barbara, I can relate to that,' and he would tell me his little story about whatever I had just read to him. So, eventually, I realized, 'Oh my goodness, this man is a wealth of knowledge,' and I started to take notes on what he would say to me about his experiences, and we became pretty close."

Elder care experts encourage family caregivers to ask for help whenever they need it - from friends or other family members, or professionals if they can afford it. They say meeting with support groups, going out with friends, enjoying a hobby and keeping a journal can also help caregivers release stress, renew their energy and continue their hard, but rewarding work.