I’m the Man (and the Caregiver)
By Lisa Weitzman | 09/10/2019
All of us caring for aging loved ones face unique challenges. Societal expectations about who handles these responsibilities – and how they should be handled – make some of these challenges ever more difficult for male caregivers. After all, when we think and talk about family caregivers, most of us immediately envision a woman, usually a wife or a daughter, and it is with this image in mind that most caregiver support programs have been created. And yet, according to a recent AARP study, 44 percent of family caregivers for older adults—or six million caregivers—are actually men, and 28 percent of these men are millennials (Accius, J. (2017). Breaking Stereotypes: Spotlight on Male Family Caregivers, AARP Public Policy Institute).
Like their female peers, male family caregivers assume multiple roles within the home. They handle the finances, arrange medical appointments and ensure that other core household tasks are addressed. They also assume responsibility for their loved one’s personal care, including bathing, toileting, dressing and cooking. While it would be easy to assume that these similar roles imply similar caregiving experiences, in many cases gender differences clearly play out in approaches and responses to caregiving.
Research studies have pointed out several key differences between men and women as caregivers. Men, in general, tend to be “fixers.” They tend to like to create lists of chores and delegate tasks that need to be completed. They often prefer to manage rather than administer hands-on care and focus on practical solutions rather than on their feelings about caregiving. Traditionally, they are not likely to discuss their stress. They may contract for assistance in the home, but they do not tend to seek emotional support in any way. In fact, men often believe that they should “tough it out on their own” and thus wait until a crisis before turning for help, even disregarding their own health issues. (Assisting Hands Home Care. (2014). Men as Family Caregivers). In sum, for many men, caregiving is not intuitive; rather it is a role they have to learn how to play.
Societal stereotypes make caregiving all the more challenging for men who find themselves as caregivers. Employers, doctors and social service providers are not accustomed to men in this role and thus do not always take their concerns seriously. Similarly, many men still define themselves as the family provider; in fact, 66 percent of male caregivers still work full-time outside of the home. At the same time, 37 percent of men—and 45 percent of millennial males—hide their caregiving responsibilities while at work, afraid of the workplace ramifications of sharing this information (Accius, 2017). Lastly, men are often not as prepared as women for the intimate aspects of caregiving. After all, many were not home when their children were young and thus did not handle many of the hands-on caregiving tasks. In cases where they reach out for help, they are not always accustomed to accessing community resources and do not know where to turn.
As with all caregivers, caregiving is not necessarily a choice for men; it is often a situation that is thrust upon them that they want to solve. They “don’t self-identify as caregivers; they just see themselves as the good husband, son, or grandson” (Seegert, L. (2019). The special challenges men face as caregivers, Association of Health Care Journalists). But, as Jean Accius reflects, “Then they realize it’s harder than they thought, they can’t fix it, and they think they’ve failed. But that’s not the case” (Accius, 2017). As one male caregiver states, “It wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to do…I just had to put my feelings in a corner and go for it.”
Thankfully, there are things that men can do to ease their caregiving struggles within “nonthreatening environments that allow for honesty without the pressure of rejection, ridicule, or criticism (Singleton, D. (2015) The Male Caregiver, caring.com). If you are a male caregiver navigating this role, you can:
- Educate yourself, and take advantage of services in the community.
- Explore professional and/or online resources, including the Well Spouse Foundation, your state’s National Caregiver Support Program, online or all-male support groups, or caregiver coaching services like WeCare. Remember that it is okay to ask for help from family and friends. You are not alone on this journey, so feel comfortable seeking out support from others.
- Accept mixed feelings about caregiving: it is hard work involving conflicting emotions.
- Value your own strengths and play to them.
- Allow yourself time to take care of you.