The Male Caregiver: Profile of an Expanding Role

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Family man. Good son. Devoted husband. These monikers fit with our perception of the male persuasion and their traditional roles. Why, then, does the label "male caregiver" still stop us in our tracks?

For Illinoisan Rich Ohlson, 69, it's because none of us, men especially, are accustomed to hearing that term or thinking of ourselves that way. Becoming a caregiver for his parents wasn't intuitive for Rich. It's a role he grew into, with the help of his sisters.

"The personal, intimate aspects of taking care of someone are the hardest ones for me, especially for a parent of the opposite sex," he says. "I remember feeling awful the day my mother said, 'I can't believe you have to help me with bathing and my bra.' She was embarrassed and so was I. There's no training for those awkward moments, which often go hand in hand with attending to personal care needs. You just learn to forge through them with as much respect for a parent's privacy and dignity as possible. I said to my mom, 'I'm your son, I love you, and I am here to help you.'"

Other aspects of his role, such as handling parents' finances and the physical ability required to physically move them as needed, came naturally. "My strength counts in caregiving," he says. "I am able to lift and carry more easily than my sisters."

While it may be true that men lead with their strengths, both literal and figurative, they are expanding what they'll do to fit the need. Caregiving comes in all forms.

Common forms of male caregiving

According to a 2013 survey of male caregivers, shopping for food and personal care items, attending medical appointments, managing finances or paying bills, communicating with friends and family about a loved one's condition, providing transportation, and administering and/or tracking medications top the list of most common duties. Many men also manage personal aspects, such as bathing and bathroom needs.

New research busts old stereotypes

Although the stereotype is of a wife or daughter as family caregiver, recent research shows that, among the nearly 65 million family caregivers in the United States, male caregivers are more prevalent than you might think. A 2012 analysis by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project found that men represent 45 percent of all family caregivers. And the Alzheimer's Association reported that between 1996 and 2011, the percentage of men caring for a family member with Alzheimer's disease or other dementia more than doubled, from 19 to 40 percent.

Reasons for the increase in male caregivers

What's causing this rise in male caregivers? According to Edrena Harrison, a social worker and specialist for the National Center on Caregiving, part of the Family Caregiver Alliance, the increase is due to several factors, including changes in gender roles and family structures, longer lifespans, and geographic separation. "With more women in the workforce, men are stepping into the role of caregiver because leaving caregiving to women is not always an option," she says. "There is also a greater geographic divide among family members today, which leads to children in other states, far from aging parents." If the daughters have moved away, it may fall to nearby sons to care for their parents.

But there's more to the story. As needs and individuals evolve, so do societal norms and expectations. "As perceptions of the abilities and responsibilities of each gender are changing, it is no longer unheard of for a man to be seen as caregiver," says Jennifer Tucker, vice president for the Denver-based Homewatch CareGivers, which hosts the online Male Caregiving Community. "Now, a man can go to his boss and say he needs schedule flexibility and time off for caregiving. In my dad's day, that never happened."

Caregiving for a spouse versus parent

While emotions are involved in any caregiving relationship, caring for a spouse is different than for a parent. Spousal caregivers differ in the type of intimacy of the connection.

"Often, sexuality may be affected by the care recipient's illness," says Harrison. "Particularly in a marriage, men may try to keep everything within the relationship and not talk about it to anyone else -- even family, close friends, physicians, or others. Intimacy issues of a different type may affect men who are caregiving for their mothers. Male caregivers are more likely to say they feel unprepared for this role as compared to female caregivers." As Rich's example illustrates, assisting with their mothers' personal care needs, such as bathing or changing adult diapers, is difficult for some men. However, there are sons who resolve the problem by viewing it as simply another task that needs to be done and they do it. Others choose to delegate or hire someone to assist with personal care.

Caring for yourself while you help others

Delegation and opting for outside support when possible certainly sound like smart ideas given a recent study that showed that many male caregivers suffer from health problems themselves. High blood pressure/hypertension, arthritis, and high cholesterol are the three most widely experienced physical maladies, while nearly a quarter of respondents suffer from depression. Others experience stress from financial burdens (around 40 percent of men spent more than $5,000 on caregiving expenses in the past year).

"Generally speaking, men are task-oriented, seek to solve problems, and prefer a routine. When a caregiving dilemma has no clear solution or they face chaos and fragmentation, as with the current health care system, some men respond by feeling ineffective, depressed, and/or angry," says Harrison. "When they struggle, according to some studies, yes, they tend to be more reluctant to seek help than female caregivers. They also do not verbalize their feelings as willingly as women."

Getting support for caregiving as a man

The good news is that, as the number of male caregivers has increased, and the discomfort and stigma of talking about their caregiving declines, more men are turning to support groups to decrease the isolation and frustrations that often come with the role. Online support groups, all-male support groups, helplines, books, articles, websites, and other services have been developed to help them, and men are reaching out. "We're seeing more nonthreatening environments that allow for honesty without the pressure of rejection, ridicule, or criticism to help men access information that works for them," says Harrison. "As a result, I think we are seeing more men being willing to self-identify as caregivers."

Three tips for male caregivers

Since it's imperative for men to help themselves while they're helping their loved ones, these three guy-centric tips offer ways to approach caregiving challenges:

Educate yourself. Learn as much as you can about the care recipient's diseases and/or disabilities. "Talk to the doctor, a social worker, or a geriatric care manager," says Trina Sauceda, one of the founders of The Let's Group, a website focused on aging and caregiving. "Ask questions of healthcare workers. Discuss issues and find out what works for the care recipient and you. Inquire about outside services that can provide assistance or support."

Share your experiences and get support. Typically, men don't talk about caregiving stress, but not sharing what's really going on is a stress unto itself. "Acknowledge your emotions, because you are not a robot, you are a human being," says Harrison. "Be honest with yourself. You can't do it all. Know that stress, anger, and frustration are common feelings among caregivers. Take care of your health, too." Caregiving is a lonely job for all, but especially so when you look around and don't see members of your tribe. Explore the growing number of support groups for male caregivers.

Lead with and value your strengths. Everyone brings their own abilities to the fore with caregiving and, while skills may be different, they are equally important. If managing finances and creating schedules for doctor appointments and medications comes more easily to you, focus on those and get help, if you can, for other, more daunting aspects of caregiving. "Just because a man is managing Mom's finances instead of giving her a bath doesn't mean he isn't caregiving," says Tucker. "Men have always been nurturers, but not always in the same ways as women. If you're always looking for solutions, then use your typical 'fixer' predisposition to its full advantage and find solutions with professionals."

"Male caregiver." The label should no longer raise an eyebrow. The sheer numbers of men in this role are impossible to ignore. As societal expectations catch up to the reality, it's important to offer men as much support as women in caring for the elderly and infirm.

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Dave Singleton

Dave Singleton is an award-winning writer, editor and author, who writes for numerous publications and websites on a variety of topics, including health, caregiving, pop culture, food, travel, social trends, relationships, and LGBT life. See full bio