Looking after elderly or ill relatives is stereotyped as a female thing; how does this affect the millions of men who take care of their loved ones?
The possibility of taking care of an elderly parent is an increasingly ominous reality. Many of us in middle age, including baby boomers, have parents who are living well into their elder years. More of us are expected to step up as a primary or supplemental caregiver.
Though it is true that women find themselves more often in the role of actively helping a parent with dementia, cancer, or some other illness, men are frequently involved in caregiving. Their roles are not at all passive. Men serve in caregiving roles all of the time. For reasons that are both gender-related and societal, we just don’t hear about it much.
Since we often attribute any kind of “maternal” or caregiving function to women, we miss the ways that men can provide a foundation of support for an older parent. When my own mother was dying, my brother slept on the floor outside of her room every evening; he wanted to be awakened easily when she needed something. At times, he was at her side 24 hours a day. He also provided a protective instinct that I lacked. When I trusted what doctors and hospice staff said, he asked critical questions. When I assumed my mother’s medication regimen was working fine, he pressed the doctors by asking what more we could do.
Men are clearly excellent caretakers, and they show up when needed, in both practical and emotional ways. Yet, the men I have known who have helped older and ill parents feel a bit adrift. They have fewer support systems. They can also sometimes feel a sense of embarrassment about their role.
Since stereotypes have shaped the way that we acknowledge male caretakers, men are often assumed to be doing just fine in such stressful roles. However, the same stressors women face when caretaking apply to men too. Anyone who is caught up in a caregiving cycle can forget that having a life outside of provider responsibilities is crucial. All of us can be swept up in a seductive cycle of feeling like we can juggle more than we ought to. We lie to ourselves and pretend we can take care of all of the people who need us. Unfortunately, that is not true. What is more accurate is that we can’t take care of others if we don’t take care of ourselves first.
Baby boomers may be more prone to an idea that they can do it all. Boomers are the beneficiaries of both modern health care and the rewards of a large middle to upper-middle class, in which an extended life is now the rule, rather than the exception. When boomers and younger middle-agers realize that life in the 21st century means an ambiguous future regarding longevity, as well as the possibility of taking care of parents, things can start to fall apart.
Middle-aged adults have higher suicide rates in the U.S., a 2010 New York Times article reports. While suicide rates have historically been the highest in very elderly men (those over 80), rates of suicide in men ages 45-54 indicate the now most common group to take control of their life and death in this way.
While no one really understands why relatively younger men are more likely to take their lives, my sense is that men are under a great deal of pressure. Supporting current families, trying to stay robust in an increasingly difficult job market, taking care of older parents, dealing with the reality of one’s own mortality, as well as acknowledging that they too, may end up just as dependent as mom or dad, might just be too much to swallow.
We are experiencing an unprecedented time of longevity. This is both good and bad news. Chances are many of us will get to live a long life and have more time to do things that are important to us. Yet, we are forced to live in an era of uncertainty. We don’t know how long we will live or whom we will have to take care of as we age. Furthermore, it can feel daunting and overwhelming to think about the possibility of our own long lives when we are worried about the lives of parents, children, partners and friends.
It is hard to think of getting help when you are giving assistance, but it is the most important thing you can do. Caregivers who don’t ask for support can get depressed or turn to alcohol or drugs for solace. It is more helpful to find ways to talk with others who know what you are going through. If talking is not your game, then just find people to hang out with. It is important to do things that remind you that you are not only someone who takes care of others. Maintaining a multifaceted identity is the key to coping when you have to look after someone you love who is ill.