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Alzheimer’s Support: Treating the Family Caregiver as a “Secondary Patient”

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A diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease or other dementias means two things:

  1. the patient will need an increasing amount of care and,
  2. the family member who takes on care responsibilities for the patient will need an increasing amount of support.

The patient's and family caregiver's livelihoods are tied very closely together—so much so that it's helpful to think of the family caregiver as a "secondary patient" who may need assessment and interventions aimed at lessening their burden while improving the quality of care they are able to provide to the patient.

According to "Patient Safety and Quality: An Evidence-Based Handbook for Nurses," published by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), interventions directed to the family caregiver should serve two purposes:

  • Reduce caregiver distress and the overall impact on their health and well-being.
  • Help make the caregiver become more competent and confident in their role, providing safe and effective care to the patient, which can indirectly reduce caregiver distress by reducing their load or increasing their sense of certainty and control.

Reducing Family Caregiver Distress

Individuals taking care of a family member suffering from Alzheimer's disease or other dementias experience one of society's most dangerous caregiving scenarios. Among the hazards are stress, depression, exhaustion, and an overall toll on the caregiver's health, job and family life.

AHRQ's handbook shared an analysis of results from several intervention studies and found the following three methods of intervention proved beneficial in reducing burden and distress for caregivers:

Reduced depression was the key benefit caregivers experienced by participating in these interventions, in addition to lower levels of stress and anger. The analysis also noted that a combination of interventions, rather than a single intervention, was most effective in reducing burden for caregivers.

Increasing Family Caregiver Competency

According to the Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation, "Caregivers' participation in education programs and support groups is now viewed as a critical facet of care for people with Alzheimer's, one as essential as pharmacological therapy."

When family caregivers understand the disease and learn how to appropriately interact with the individual according to the disease stage, they become more effective at reducing behavioral problems and improving the quality of life for all involved, according to the Center.

Numerous training and education opportunities are available to family caregivers through the Alzheimer's Association, the Home Instead network, and other community organizations. The following Alzheimer's care training opportunities are available to family caregivers at no cost:

View more educational opportunities and other resources for Alzheimer's family caregivers at

For more information about supporting the family caregivers of Alzheimer's patients, learn about 3 Ways to Help Make Alzheimer's Less of a Burden on Families.

Last revised: November 12, 2012

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