Their numbers keep rising. Traditionally, it's been women who have taken on the caregiver role, and women are still, statistically, in the majority. However, things are changing. When I first interviewed caregivers for my book, Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories, I thought I'd have to scour the state for male caregivers. It ended up that four out of the twenty caregivers I interviewed were men. It wasn't a purposeful thing - it just happened. I found out soon after, through a little research, that 25% was the approximate percentage of male caregivers, at that time.
I recently read where that number is now 40%. As with a count of any kind, there is a large margin for error, but the numbers are definitely climbing. The nytimes.com site recently ran an article titled, "More Men Take the Lead Role in Caring for Elderly Parents." The article mirrored much of what I heard from the men I interviewed, as well as what was written about in two books I reviewed for this site, Dementia Diary: A Caregiver's Journal, by Robert Tell and The Parent Care Conversation, By Dan Taylor.
The Times article spotlighted one man who was unmarried and seemed the likely person in the family to care for the ailing mother. He quit his job and moved in with her. In the article, he talks of the social isolation of the caregiver, and the feeling of being unprepared for the role. I think these feelings describe many, if not most, caregivers of either gender.
It's pointed out that men are less likely to know other men going through the same experience, and there are apt to be fewer men in caregiver support groups. This is certainly the case on a caregiving forum I moderate. The forum is online, and is open to either gender, yet far fewer men than women take part. It seems many men still have a hard time admitting that caregiving is tough going, alone.
Men also, according to the article, have a harder time owning up to their new responsibilities when it comes to their employer. The feeling that the man is totally dedicated to his job, and family comes second, is still a problem in our society. I would add that many women face the same hardships, but perhaps it is harder in some fields for men to be seen as capable of caregiving and holding a job at the same time.
The article also points out that men want their role as caregivers validated. Again, I'm sure it is harder for men to be validated as working when they are caregiving, but I will personally attest to the fact that during the two decades of elder care I provided (spread over seven elders), few people thought I was working. Wasn't I just doing what came naturally?
I really felt for the man in the Times article when the topic of bathing his mother was discussed. I'll never forget the first time I took my dad to the bathroom. He was still at home, but my mother had gone out, he had to use the bathroom and he couldn't do it alone. I was terrified that he'd feel humiliated. However, he handled it well. I tried to spare his dignity as much as possible, and eventually, as the years went by and nursing home employees - mostly women - bathed him and took him to the bathroom, I also could do it without anxiety about his feelings.
Even with a same-sex elder, it's just not natural to be put in that intimate kind of position, when it comes to a parent. It's stressful to figure out a way to let them keep their dignity, but still keep them safe. I believe some the anxiety adult children feel stems from the the pain of seeing our parents so fragile.
And then, when dementia enters the picture, the situation can change daily, as the elder may not remember who you are, or why your are doing these intimate things. This is a huge issue for the man in the Times story, and for good reason. It seems unnatural. That kid inside of all of us is screaming, "This is backwards!"
Men are, indeed, stepping up to the plate, as caregivers. Some are doing it because they are the only child, as in Robert Tell's case. Some are doing it because for whatever reason, they are the logical person.
It's never easy to step into the role of being a parent's caregiver. Men are now sharing that journey with women on a nearly equal basis. I do think that shows some gains in society. Men can nurture, and that nurturing needs to be validated. They also need the support of all of us women who have been immersed in caregiving for decades. Most of us will try to offer understanding, as well as some advice.
So, guys, reach out. We've got several men here on OurAlzheimer's. Help each other and other men find sites such as this. We women will do our best to support you as well. Men will gradually find that support from others helps alleviate one of their major problems - isolation. And then they will seek companionship along their caregiving journey in droves.
Published On: December 06, 2008