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November 23, 2014 / 1 Kislev, 5775
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Men As Caregivers

I have often written my column about women and their experiences as caregivers. It was not my intension to exclude men, however most support groups I attended were either entirely or mostly made up of women. So naturally, I tend to see things from a woman’s perspective. Recently however, I have noticed that men are beginning to appear, though in small numbers, at some of these support groups.  That may be attributed to the increase by 50 percent of the number of male caregivers between 1984 and 1994. And today one third of caregivers are men. What a sharp contrast this is from over 30 years ago when one MS caregiver study stated that when women are diagnosed with MS, 90 percent of their male caregivers leave.

 

Societal morays may have contributed to this change. We are living longer and the inevitability of long term illness increases with our longer life span. Also, over the last 20 to 30 years, the traditional male and female roles have become blurred. More women are working outside the home and more men are helping with cooking, cleaning and child rearing.  Therefore, the bridge to becoming a male caregiver is not as foreign (or maybe as frightening) as it once was. A smaller family size has left us with less extended family to call on for assistance and often today, immediate as well as extended families no longer live around the corner or even in the same state or country.

 

            And so with their numbers as caregivers increasing, men are beginning to suffer from many of the same emotional experiences as women. Depression, lack of time for themselves, juggling too many roles at once, lack of self-care resulting in their ill health and the tremendous cost of chronic illness are now part of the lives of male caregivers as well as females.

 

            However, it seems that women are more likely to seek help through support groups and counseling than are their male counterparts. Even those males, who do avail themselves of support groups, may react, share and cope with their experiences differently than woman. In some support groups I attended which started with both men and women, the participants decided to separate by gender, feeling their needs would be better filled if they had shared with only people of the same gender, in the same situation.

 

              There are some other positive and negative affects that seem to be unique to the male caregivers I interviewed. In positive ways, these men seem to get more support and for a longer period of time than woman in the same role. This support is most likely to come from women in their community, who the men felt see them as less capable than their female counterparts. Still support is support and it is very welcome. 

 

   Males also seem to get more praise when they become caregivers and are even seen as “heroes” when they step up to caregiving chores as opposed to women who are expected to assume the caregiving role and may be seen as “uncaring and self-centered” if they choose not to. On the negative side some of the men felt the role of male caregiver was looked down upon on occasion, particularly by other males who were not caregivers.

 

             A male asking his boss to leave work early in order to take his chronically ill wife or parent to a doctor may be seen very differently than his female peer who may make the same request. A 2003 study at three Fortune 500 companies found that men were less likely to use employee-assistance programs for caregivers, because they feared it would be held against them.

 

            Some male caregivers also felt that there are some practitioners in the medical professions who prefer to deal with female caregivers as opposed to males. And then there is the whole problem of the person you are caring for. A son caring for a mother and the intimacy that may be involved in changing clothes or bathing is very awkward for everyone involved.  It is further complicated by societal norms that see it as less acceptable for a man to care for his mother in this manner than for a daughter caring for a father.  Yet, both are extremely difficult situations for the parents and children involved, no matter what their gender.

 

             Lastly, as frequently as female caregivers become ill – and many predecease their loved ones – according to the Alzheimer’s Association 60 percent of male caregivers will die before the patient they are caring for.

 

            Caregiving – whether it is a male or female assuming the role – is a tremendously difficult job. It is essential that all caregivers put emotional and physical supports in place for themselves, with as much care as they do for their loved ones.

 

    You can contact me at annnovick@hotmail.com   

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More Articles from Ann Novick

When one is blind one learns to use Braille to read. When one cannot walk, a wheelchair gives mobility. Sign language allows a mute person to speak and ocular implants assist in hearing when one is deaf. These are all compensatory strategies that help a person function despite his disability. But compensatory strategies are not just for physical problems. Understanding our psychological weaknesses and setting up our lives to ensure that we are not tempted to repeat our past mistakes, is as necessary as any aid to the disabled.

Well spouses have often discovered that their friends and relatives, despite their closeness to the situation, often don’t realize the tremendous emotional impact living with chronic illness has on the family. With the best intentions, suggestions, ideas and criticism are offered, based on the non-experience of those with healthy families. Even when the good intentioned get a taste of the difficulties, it is sometimes not enough for them to then identify and understand what the family of the chronically ill must face on a constant basis.

Over the past two weeks I have shared letters from a therapist and a well spouse. Both of the letters gave personal insights into the process of losing hope, how we react when that happens and some ways of coping when test scores, diagnosis and just simple repetitive behavior indicate that change for the better is impossible.

Dear Ann,

I’ve read your last few articles on psycho-neurological testing (Oct.8-22) with interest. As a therapist who has counseled couples dealing with chronic illness, I’d like to give you another perspective.

Dear Ann,

Your articles on the Neuro-Psychological Testing were right on (October 8-22). My husband underwent testing twice and your articles explained it things exactly the way they were. Besides the test, we also tried therapy.

Very often when we can’t face our big hurts or big loses we focus on the little ones. We can discuss those. We can cry over the small loses, be angry at the smaller hurts even though it may look trite and sound ridiculous to others.

Over the last two weeks we have been discussing one way in which well spouses can determine whether behavior displayed by their ill partners is caused by their illness or is a way they have chosen to act. We have focused on Psycho-Neurological testing, what it can tell us, as well as its pros and cons.

Last week I discussed a question that haunts many well spouses: not knowing if the difficult and often inappropriate behavior frequently displayed by their partners are caused by the disease and therefore not-controllable, or if the behavior is a choice the spouse makes and can therefore be changed. This doubt can be the source of much frustration and many marital disagreements. One way of alleviating this doubt is by having a psycho- neurological work up done. But that path is not so simple.

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