Men Taking Care
Differences and commonalities between men and women who care for a loved one
Caregiving covers a wide spectrum. It ranges from doing household chores for a few weeks after a loved one’s surgery all the way to suctioning tracheotomy tubes, performing transfers and changing the absorbent products of an incontinent adult. No matter what the caregivers’ responsibilities entail, caregiving is not a job anyone asks for or plans on. It is a role thrust upon a person by circumstances and accepted out of love. It requires a lot of love to take on responsibility for another’s well-being.
As our population ages, men are increasingly being called on to become caregivers to their aging mothers, ailing spouses or sometimes even to their child with a chronic condition.
A generation ago, male caregivers were rare. Today gender roles are changing — and more people are surviving serious health crises and being released from the hospital sooner. This increases the need for caregiving at home. Now about a third of all caregivers are men.
About two-thirds of family caregivers are women, and this is not just because females are socialized to care for others. "In the literature, researchers talk about ‘opportunity costs," said I-Fen Lin, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "Because women generally make less money than men, women’s opportunity cost is lower than men’s. As an example, if a parent is sick, and my wage is lower than my husband’s, then I will take care of the parent." The calculation is what will cause less economic loss to the family.
Lin has done research on male caregivers. She points out that men and women are socialized differently. In our society men are often raised to focus more on completing tasks and achieving accomplishments more than being people-focused and feeling oriented. This has both positive and negative consequences for male caregivers and their care recipients.
In the emotional upheaval that often accompanies being put into the caregiving role, men tend to block their emotions. "For instance, they know these are the five things I have to accomplish so this is what I am going to do to solve this problem," Lin said. "For men it’s more instrumental coping — they want to find a solution to their problems. They tend to block or not acknowledge their emotions and try to focus on the task." Blocking emotions may be protective because caregiving can be a tedious job.
But caregiving is more than solving problems — people who are ill or frail need emotional support. "The care recipient may not always be able to tell someone what they need," Lin said. "The caregiver has to have frequent contact with the recipient in order to know what they need and the best way to provide that comfort. If I am sick, I need help, but I don’t just need help with food or medicine or mobility, I need emotional support."
If you are having difficulty providing emotional support for your loved one, it may be worth seeking guidance from a professional counselor or finding a support group for family caregivers in your area. (See "Getting Support" below.)
According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, male caregivers are less likely to provide personal care. About 40 percent of male caregivers use paid assistance for a loved one’s personal care. For those who don’t feel able to take on what’s required, it may be important to explore the possibility of getting professional caregiving help. "It is very important to assess a person’s comfort in taking care of various activities of daily living (ADLs) — bathing, toileting, medication management, dressing," said Monique Tremaine, Ph.D., director of neuropsychology at Kessler Rehabilitation Institute in West Orange, New Jersey. "Assessing a caregiver’s comfort and limitations in caring for their loved one and providing resources for adequate support can ease caregiver burden."
If you feel you need help to best care for your loved one, AARP.org provides guidance on how to go about hiring the right help for your situation.
SOME GENDER DIFFERENCES
One gender difference is societal expectations. As an example, think of a working-age couple where the wife becomes ill and the husband has to take family leave to be a caregiver. That can be more stigmatized for men and can impact their career path. "In general, this kind of stigma around having to take time off from work is one difference that I see between male and female caregivers," Tremaine said.
Most men have the natural advantage of greater physical strength. If a loved one needs help getting from bed to wheelchair, for example, a man may be better suited for that. Nonetheless, back injuries are a leading complaint of all caregivers.
Another difference that Lin notes is that men are less likely to be expected to be caregivers, so they are more likely to get praise for their caregiving.
SOME GENDER COMMONALITIES
While acknowledging that men don’t ask for help, in her research, Lin did not find a gender difference in the willingness to ask for help. "When the stress is not very high, both sexes will start with emotional coping first," she said. "They will pray, meditate, read, exercise, do a hobby. When there are lots of physical or mental demands, they will start to ask for help. For example, they will use community services to do housework or a service to deliver meals or for transportation — it depends on the demands of the caregiving task."
Two important strategies for dealing with caregiver burden are talking to other people about the situation and taking advantage of respite care. Caregiving can be tedious work, and all caregivers need some relief. Your Area Agency on Aging (AAA) is a reliable place to begin a search for respite care as well as for caregiver support groups.
Caregiver burnout relates more to the complexity of the care required than gender. Burnout is common in both genders and must be guarded against. Unfortunately, neither sex appears adept at making self-care a priority. All caregivers need to see their own physicians regularly, maintain a healthy diet and establish a regular routine of physical activity. Overall, men need to understand and accept that getting help isn’t a sign of weakness but a success strategy for improving the quality of care they can give.
THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT
Technology can also help with the myriad duties caregivers have to address — from medication management to organizing caregiving duties, from keeping family informed to monitoring a care recipient’s health at a distance. "Smartphone technology has become so simple that elderly people can learn to use it to organize planners and keep track of medication," Tremaine said. "There is a lot that technology can do to help an overburdened person by assisting the injured person to be more independent and helping the caregiving spouse or adult child manage their extra role." (See "Technology for caregivers" below.)
Taking care of a loved one with a health challenge shows compassion and an inner strength that is admirable regardless of gender. Men should be encouraged to reach out for the help they need when taking on this role. That may include getting help with day-to-day tasks, getting the time they need for themselves or getting the emotional support necessary to keep up their own strength as they care for their loved one.
Technology for Caregivers
Technology has met caregiving and they have a bunch of offspring! There are apps, gadgets and websites that can help caregivers:
- Manage complex medication regimens
- Gather, track and report health data such as blood pressure and blood sugar
- Learn more about diseases, conditions and medication
- Help both caregivers and care recipients stay healthy
- Monitor elderly parents for falls and personal emergencies with a new generation of devices
- Help caregivers organize friends and family to provide care with easy-to-use coordination tools
- Find respite care for themselves
- Keep family informed of a loved one’s condition
There are also new products that allow caregivers and their loved ones to communicate without using a computer, tablet or cell phone — a concern with many elderly adults. There are many new developments in simplified devices, from phone enhancements to simplified social media interfaces.
For an exhaustive list of websites, apps and devices, visit the Caregiver Action Network.