More Men Are Serving as Family Caregivers

Scott's job takes him around the country on business trips, and he is a single dad of two college-age  sons. His mom has always helped out with the boys—but now, she has experienced a serious stroke, and requires care herself. Scott wants to provide care for the woman who has cared for him and his family so much over the years. But how will he keep up his busy work schedule while making sure Mom is safe and following her doctor's orders? It's hard for him to concentrate on his work sometimes, worrying as he does about Mom.

According to the National Family Caregivers Association, over 65 million Americans now provide care for senior or disabled loved ones, meeting the personal care needs of a spouse or partner, parents, parents-in-law, disabled children or siblings.

Historically, the great majority of these family caregivers were women—and our understanding of how to support caregivers has been mostly based on a female model. But families are changing in the U.S.: more women have entered the workforce; couples have fewer children and at a later age; the divorce rate is higher; there is more geographic distance between family members; and gender roles are changing. According to Pew Research Center, today close to half of family caregivers are men.

Each caregiver's style is unique, and it is important not to generalize along gender lines. But recent studies suggest some characteristics that are more common for men who are in the role of caregiver:

Men more often report feeling unprepared for the role. Shifts in gender roles have transformed American families over the last decades, but the generation currently providing the most family caregiving was still raised in a time when care was looked on as "women's work." A man may be unaccustomed to assisting with personal care tasks like bathing, grooming, and dressing. In addition, a husband whose wife becomes incapacitated may be overwhelmed by new household duties when he suddenly finds himself in charge of cooking, shopping, laundry and budgeting. Even baby boomer sons who actively participated in childcare report feeling awkward when it comes to the tasks of caring for aging parents—and the shift of emotional roles. Says one caregiver, "After years of coming over to Mom's for a little TLC, I now find myself in effect parenting my parent."

Men find it harder to ask for help. Statistics show that male caregivers are less likely to ask for assistance, either from friends and family or from social service organizations. The generation that is currently providing the most care to family members was raised to "tough it out" and handle things on their own. Studies show that men are also less familiar with the social services network, and are more likely to view these resources as "charity."

Men find it harder to talk about their feelings. Caregiving can bring with it a host of difficult emotions—frustration, grief, helplessness, anger, a sense of isolation. Men in our culture have often been socialized to bottle up their emotions and keep feelings to themselves. Their wives may have been their only confidante. So they are less likely to share feelings with friends and family, or to seek the help of support groups, counselors and other outside resources.

If employed, men are more reluctant to discuss caregiving issues at work. Employees whose "second job" is providing care for a family member frequently find that these two roles compete for time and attention.

Coming in late after taking the loved one to doctors' appointments, unplanned days off if back-up care doesn't arrive, phone calls from the care receiver…male caregivers are more likely to "cover up" for their caregiving tasks, rather than letting their employer know the situation. They are also less likely to take advantage of available workplace resources.

Caregiving can actually be physically harder on men. One thing most family caregivers know: for all the rewards of providing care for a loved one, caregiving can be physically and emotionally challenging. The physical tasks of lifting and transferring their loved one, combined with loss of sleep and increased stress, can lead to a decline in health for the caregiver. Studies show that hormonal differences actually put men at greater risk for stress-related illnesses—and men are also less likely to pay attention to their own health concerns.

10 Things Male Caregivers Should Know

  1. Remember that you are not alone. Many other men are providing care for loved ones, and there are many people—family, friends and professionals—who can help.
  2. It's OK to ask for help from family and friends. Most people are willing to help, and are pleased to be asked—but it's easier for them to pitch in if you assign specific tasks. Hold a family brainstorming session for delegating duties and sharing responsibilities.
  3. Take advantage of services that are available in your community. Investigate options such as a geriatric care manager, in-home care, respite care, senior centers and help with financial and legal issues. Some services may be available for no cost or on a sliding scale. (Remember: seeking help from public agencies does not equal "charity." Your taxes and those of the person you are caring for have helped build the safety net of social services.)
  4. Mixed feelings about your role are natural, and to be expected. A whole host of emotions go along with being a family caregiver. No matter how much love and satisfaction you feel, caregiving is hard work, and almost all caregivers experience conflicted feelings: grief and loss, anger and frustration, guilt and resentment.
  5. Be alert for signs of depression and caregiver exhaustion. If you are feeling drained of time and energy and are feeling trapped, you may be focused too much on your caregiver role. Studies show that male caregivers tend to turn inward with their negative emotions. Remember that it is important to seek help if your role begins to feel overwhelming.
  6. It often helps to talk about your feelings. Keeping those painful feelings inside can lead to depression and stress-related physical illnesses. Share your thoughts with family and friends. Find others who are dealing with similar issues—take a caregiver class, investigate online communities of caregivers, attend a support group. Spend time with people facing similar challenges with whom you can brainstorm and problem solve.
  7. Alert key people at your workplace about your caregiving status. With more and more employees balancing work and home responsibilities, many companies have become more accommodating. They know that this is part of ensuring a productive workforce. Your HR department may offer resources for eldercare providers, such as counseling and consultation, help with insurance issues, and assistance in accessing services. Flextime or telecommuting may be an option, as well.
  8. Take care of your own wellness needs. For many caregivers, their own healthcare, nutrition, exercise and emotional well-being take a back seat to the pressing needs of the care receiver. But taking care of yourself is a key part of being an effective caregiver.
  9. Take time for yourself. Remember: you will do a better job of caring for your loved one if you are not burned out yourself. Arrange for regular breaks from your role as a caregiver. Relax, do things you enjoy, seek a change of scenery from time to time. Nurturing your spirit helps "recharge your batteries."
  10. Do your homework and ask plenty of questions. It's important to gather as much information as possible about your loved one's condition. The more you know, the more effective an advocate you can be, and the more you will know what to expect. Knowledge is power!

Read on to find out how family and friends can help the male caregivers in their lives!

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2014.