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.
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