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The struggles of being a caregiver can be a challenge

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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) -

You may not recognize the little girl in an old, black and white photo, but as a woman, you'd definitely put her name with her face.

"My mom is from Summerton," said Leeza Gibbons. "My dad is from Turbeville. So, I'm South Carolina homegrown."

But Leeza lives in LA, and she works in TV.

The Hollywood host may get it honestly. Her mother took to the airwaves in the 90's on WIS to make a public announcement to tell a story, that her daughter was going to have to finish.

"About the time we came down to WIS to do that impromptu take, she would keep telling Leeza, 'I want you to do everything you can to find a cure for this disease,'" said Gibbons' dad, Carl Gibbons.

Leeza's mother was dealing with Alzheimer's Disease.

And so, with the help of her dad in Irmo, she's taken on the least flashy of roles.

"This is not a winning subject," said Leeza. "This is not a club people want to join. It's not sexy; it's not glamorous."

She's talking about taking on the role of caregiver -- tending to someone who can't walk or bathe or feed themselves. That's what happened to Leeza's mom. She died of Alzheimer's in 2008 -- 9 years after her diagnosis, requiring about a few years of in home care and 5 years of out of home care.

Carl remembers when they had to make the call to move her out and he remembers what happened after.

"It is a traumatic experience," said Carl. "Having been married to a woman for 55 years and all of a sudden, she's not there anymore. It's devastating, really."

"I lost weight. I began drinking too much beer and stuff. I wouldn't brush my teeth. I would wear the same clothes two or three days in a row."

It may all seem familiar to fellow caregivers.

"Two-thirds of caregivers experience some sort of health issue. Two-thirds of caregivers experience some sort of stress," said Jan Merling, public health teacher at the University of South Carolina. She also leads workshops on caregiving.

"I hear all the time, 'My dad's taking care of my mom, she has dementia, and he's not doing well,' and then he'll have a heart attack," said Merling.

Merling offers advice on resources. She tells caregivers to contact the local Agency on Aging. If they have dementia, she says the Alzheimer's Association can help with money as well. She also says support groups are huge, and caregivers need to focus on themselves.

But isn't that selfish?

"Sounds that way, but it really isn't," said Merling. "Because if you get ill, then somebody's going to have to take care of both of you. So, if you take care of yourself by getting out, exercising or staying healthy, you have the capability to continue becoming effective."

It's the mantra Leeza is trying to tell the world. She compares it to a plane when passengers are warned in emergency to put on their oxygen masks before helping someone else put on theirs.

Leeza admits it's not easy during a time when old family issues can come to the surface.

"Yeah, you're going to have to deal with it, but you're going to need to stay whole and complete and that means take your oxygen first. So, focusing on that is the loving thing to do -- it's job one," said Leeza.

With support from people on the outside, she says her inner circle, her family, got stronger.

"It's unbelievable as to how providence can sometimes bless you in ways that are adverse," said Carl.

"Well said, Daddy," said Leeza.

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