In our society, the term “caregiver” has been traditionally associated with the role of women. As our older population continues to expand, the need for family caregivers is also increasing, and a growing number of men are taking on the challenges of this role.
The prevalence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in the older population is also a contributing factor. The Alzheimer’s Association’s 2019 Facts and Figures report identifies one study that estimates that men at age 45 have a 10% chance of developing the disease during their lifetime while women have a 20% chance, resulting in many women with spouses or adult sons who may find themselves in the role of a caregiver.
Do men and women view, approach and experience caregiving roles differently? I met with a gentleman who cared for his wife at home for 13 years after her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Since her passing several years ago, he has continued to attend the support group that assisted him throughout his wife’s illness, and facilitates a separate support group, as well.
Personally, Ernie found that his largest emotional hurdle was his uncertainty about “whether or not I had the flexibility to convert myself into a nurturer.” Accustomed to viewing life in large part from a business-like perspective, he struggled for about a year to develop the patience, gentleness and hands-on skills required for caregiving. He believes many other men do not view themselves as nurturers either, and therefore may not adjust to a caregiving role in the same way that some women do.
On the other hand, a business-like approach to caregiving does have some advantages, according to a 2012 study by researchers at Bowling Green State University.
They described this approach as “block and tackle,” in which the caregiver completes one task and moves directly on to the next one. Ernie’s caregiving process involved defining a problem or care need, identifying possible solutions, and then trying each solution to see which ones worked and which didn’t. If something didn’t work, he adapted the idea or discarded it, but tried not to focus on the lack of initial success in managing the issue. His emotions remained “on a more even keel” this way.
The Bowling Green researchers determined that while women perhaps by nature or socialization are more nurturing than men, they also tend to dwell on their performance of caregiving tasks, which in turn leads to anxiety and higher stress levels.
Methods by which men participate in caregiving is another area that differs from women. When assistance is needed, the Bowling Green researchers found that men are more reluctant to ask for help than women. Over the years, Ernie also has found that men are of the mindset to hire help rather than learn care tasks themselves, and are quicker to admit a loved one to a facility than women are.
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A Pew Research Center survey found that caregiving men are only half as likely as women to report that they provide personal care to their loved one. When the need is frequent emotional support, the percentages of men and women who report that they provide this type of care are closer (30 percent of men to 39 percent of women). Generally, men also may be more reluctant to participate in caregiving in the first place. Ernie often hears from daughters caring for parents that their brothers refuse to help.
Interestingly, when I asked Ernie whether or not he had faced any discrimination as a male caregiver, he referred to his wife’s family’s reactions during the early stages of her Alzheimer’s disease. His wife’s brother accepted Ernie’s observations about her behavior as fact, while her sisters tended to blame him for the changes and “accused me of doing something to her.”
Ernie also had difficulty convincing their family physician that his wife was experiencing changes. This situation may not be uncommon since in early Alzheimer’s disease, the symptoms may be very subtle and the affected individual can be very effective at presenting a “normal” appearance for short periods of time.
In our office, we have seen many male family caregivers who are providing various levels of care, from general intermittent oversight to hands-on, 24-hour care. They include husbands caring for wives, sons for parents, brothers for siblings, and even nephews for aunts and uncles.
The gender of a caregiver will undoubtedly influence one’s fulfillment of this role to some extent, but the overall experience of care giving will depend on many other factors. For both men and women, flexibility and a willingness to learn are helpful characteristics to possess or develop for the performance of care giving responsibilities.
The engagement of supportive services can also help provide greater stability for both the caregiver and the care recipient, and the earlier these services are sought out, the more benefit a family will receive. Just ask Ernie.
This article has been reprinted from an earlier Sentinel edition in recognition of November being National Family Caregivers Month.