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Network Matters
News and Information for the
Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Network

February 2015

Caring for a Caregiver: Signs and Treatment of Caregiver Stress 

Dedicating oneself to the constant monitoring and assistance of a loved one can be a heavy burden, and the stress stemming from such a responsibility often means the caregiver is equally in need of care.

If your patient is a caregiver, being always on call to assist with everyday activities from bathing and eating to taking medicine and paying bills can be emotionally and physically taxing. Whether he/she is tending to an elderly parent with Alzheimer’s, a developmentally disabled adult child, or a severely handicapped friend or relative, your patient may be too enveloped in the role of caregiver to address his/her own needs. Caring for a caregiver has its own set of challenges, starting with identifying a potential problem.

Identifying caregiver stress syndrome

Someone bogged down by the stress that accompanies such a daunting sense of duty and responsibility will likely feel frustrated, exhausted, anxious, and even depressed. Some warning signs to look for in your patient are:

  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Feeling of helplessness or guilt
  • Loneliness and social withdrawal
  • Changes in sleep patterns, appetite, or weight
  • Weakened immune system — getting sick more often
  • Loss of interest in activities he/she usually enjoys
  • Fatigue
  • Anger directed inward or even at the person for whom he/she is caring
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Tension headaches
  • Back pain
  • Excessive worrying
  • Drug abuse or excessive alcohol intake


Some patients exhibiting signs of caregiver burnout may benefit greatly from simply opening up to their PCP about the adverse effects the role is having, and being reassured that these feelings and symptoms are common. Small changes — getting more sleep; practicing relaxation techniques; carving out time to talk to friends and relatives; making sure to exercise regularly; improving one’s diet; etc. — can work wonders to improve caregiver stress.

Patients with more serious, persistent conditions indicative of clinical depression should be referred to a behavioral health clinician, as psychotherapy and/or antidepressant medications may be necessary.

How Optum/UBH can help your patients — For complex clinical situations, Optum/UBH is available to provide consultative assistance. Practitioners can call the Optum/UBH Physicians Consultation Service at 800-292-2922. To refer a patient for behavioral health services and to facilitate the coordination of care, call Optum at 888-777-4742.

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Richard Weisblatt PhD,
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