Formally or informally, more and more men are taking care of those who need to be taken care of.
Today nearly 66 million Americans, or 29 percent of the U.S. adult population, actively care for someone who is frail, ill or disabled. This number will only continue to grow as our population ages in the years to come.
In the world of family caregiving men have long been regarded as passive members of a caregiving team, but this is starting to change. Men are becoming more involved in this critical function of the long-term care system with sons, brothers and husbands today comprising roughly 45 percent of family caregivers.
Such an increase in the proportion of male caregivers can be explained by a combination of social and demographic changes, such as increased life expectancy, greater geographic separation of family members, smaller families and shifting gender roles. The evolving attitudes towards “traditional” feminine and masculine roles have helped men become more confident in taking on tasks generally performed by women. For example, more and more men are tackling housekeeping duties or acting as the primary caretakers of their children.
Today, men all over the country are rolling up their sleeves and doing their best to provide care to their ill spouses, aging parents and children with special needs, whether it be through assisting loved ones with daily tasks, medication management, mobility and transportation, or with financial and legal planning.
Ultimately, all caregivers aim to maximize the health, safety and quality of life of those under their care, however, men and women approach caregiving in different ways.
For example, male caregivers often act as “case managers” and deconstruct tasks to cater to their loved ones’ needs as efficiently as possible. In some instances, men might favor hiring a paid caregiver when they feel that they are no longer able to provide adequate care. This scenario often occurs when men are confronted by delicate and at times uncomfortable tasks such as bathing or dressing a sick or elderly family member, especially when a care recipient is an aging mother or grandmother.
Male caregivers often start at a disadvantage: most sons, grandsons and husbands receive little or no preparation for the role of nurturer and primary care provider. Still, men have a variety of strengths that makes them particularly well suited to caregiving. For example, men tend to be task-oriented and use problem-solving skills acquired in the workplace to surmount caregiving challenges. Male caregivers often compartmentalize caregiving tasks and perform them until more intense care is needed.
Work and Care Balance
Men and women handle the work/care ratio differently too. Men typically try to juggle their professional responsibilities with the ones they have as a caregiver, while women are more likely to stop working full time in the same situation.
Make no mistake, caregiving is a full-time job. Regardless of their gender, caregivers can spend hours dealing with insurance companies, talking to doctors, setting up appointments or comforting loved ones. These tasks often encroach on a caregiver’s professional life and can negatively impact their job performance.
Men tend not to discuss personal matters out of fear of being stigmatized by their peers. However, they would be doing themselves a favor if they had a frank discussion about their situation with a superior. Such a talk could save them from any misunderstandings and help their employer understand why their performance may be suffering. As an employee, making a few suggestions on how to minimize disruptions and improve productivity during this transitional period will demonstrate their commitment to the organization. Furthermore, human resource departments can clarify employees’ rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which offers them certain protections if care of a family member results in missed work days.
Support and Planning
Neither male nor female caregivers are immune to the stresses associated with caregiving. The loss of autonomy or declining health of a relative can be devastating. Men deal with stress and grief in different ways than women and are generally less open to sharing their feelings with others. Additionally, men tend not to have the same support networks as women and often end up facing the challenges of caring for a loved one alone.
But male family caregivers do not need to handle the challenge of caregiving on their own. There are a growing number of resources available to help men navigate the challenges they face in caring for a loved one. One of the best examples of this new type of male support network is the Male Caregiver Community, an online forum for men to share their concerns and give each other advice about caregiving 24/7, 365 days a year. The anonymity of the service helps men feel more comfortable about sharing their emotions and allows them to connect with other men experiencing similar challenges. This sort of interaction can be a huge relief against the sense of isolation men in caregiving roles often experience. Members also have access to a library of caregiving-focused articles and materials.
Other than the Male Caregiver Community, men can also look to resources in their local communities. These can include religious organizations, charities and government programs. Looking for community-based support networks can often be a daunting and confusing process. However, a quick Google search can help pinpoint the services a community has to offer. The Eldercare Locator, a public service of the U.S. Administration on Aging, is a good start.
Quick thinking is key to being an effective caregiver. Nonetheless, caregivers should avoid improvising when it comes to money. The costs associated with caring for a loved one can add up fast. For this reason, working with a financial planner can greatly reduce the risks of getting into debt or having to reduce the quality of care a loved one receives.
Male Caregiving Goes Mainstream
Much more needs to be done to educate employers, the public and legislators about the growing role men play in complementing our health care system.
As the caregiving landscape continues to evolve, so should the support for men who take on this noble and essential role in society. Men should not be afraid to proudly discuss the struggles they face in caring for their loved ones, and should rest assured that many men around them are going through the very same thing.