Caregiving: Tough Enough for a Man

On a typical day in Silver Spring, Md., Edith Dotson, a wheelchair-bound, Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, can be found receiving care from a local relative. For over six years, Edith has received this care, and when her relative finally let the rest of the family know how stressful it is to care for Edith, a tearful breakdown ensued.

What may surprise you is that this relative is a man — Edith’s grown son, James Dotson.

It took Dotson years to finally express the massive strain caring for his mother was having on his life: “We [men] just hold stuff in,” he said.

When it comes to the typical American caregiver, most may envision a sweet, motherly, nurturing woman. They’d be surprised, then, to learn that 40 percent of America’s family caregivers are actually men. There are 16 million male caregivers in America, making up 2 of every 5 caregivers, according to a new groundbreaking study by AARP.

The problem lies not only in the fact that males are often overlooked as caregivers within families, but that they seek support more rarely than their female counterparts. This could be in part due to cultural stereotypes of a man’s need to exude strength and independence, but it could also be because many male caregivers don’t even see themselves as caregivers at all — rather as sons, spouses and friends simply helping a loved one in need.

“For male caregivers, part of the problem is that men just don’t even use the word caregiver about themselves,” said Michael Birt, Atlas of Caregiving advisory board member. “Society has trouble dealing with male caregivers because they’re so contrary to what caregiving is ‘supposed’ to look like.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that most male caregivers receive little to no training for their daily undertakings. Thus, they feel very unprepared for caregiving’s more challenging tasks such as nursing and administering medicine, or its more intimate tasks, such as feeding, bathing or clothing.

Further, male caregivers typically don’t reach out to seek the emotional and physical support often needed to care for another person, making them more vulnerable than women to psychical, mental and emotional health issues.

“Men don’t like to feel that they need something from someone else, and so it becomes very isolating,” said Birt. “I think men are even more vulnerable to deterioration of their own health while being caregivers.”

Another factor that makes male caregivers uniquely vulnerable, Birt says, is that they’re often socially dependent on their wives, especially within the context of family. “The mothers often become the center of an extended family, where if you want to know anything about the whole family, there’s one person you call. So when that person goes down, especially for the men who depend on it, you lose everything — all the connections, the social life, and the things that made it all work and feel fun.”

Changing the male mentality

How can men ask for help with caregiving if they don’t identify themselves as caregivers in the first place?

AARP is on a mission to change the male dialogue. The issue has become so vital that AARP and the Ad Council recently joined forces to create a Caregiver Assistance campaign focused specifically on male caregivers. On April 11, they released their first-ever PSA on the topic, featuring actor Danny Trejo.

With a goal of helping men self-identify as caregivers, Trejo — known for his fierce, strong and masculine demeanor — compares the tasks of caregiving to tasks such as lifting a car or shaving with a machete. With the slogan of “Caregiving is tougher than tough,” Trejo says,

“Let me tell you about the toughest guy on earth. He does the work of two jobs, but only gets paid for one. He’s tough enough to feed a man who gave him a lifetime of nourishment. He has the crazy strength to lift the man who raised him up without even flinching. That’s right. No employee of the month bonus check here. This guy — no, this warrior — will always be by his father’s side, even if his dad will hardly remember it. Good luck finding a gym to train for that. If this guy isn’t the toughest guy on the planet, then I don’t know who is.”

The full-length commercial can be viewed here.

Learning about male caregivers: a look at the numbers

Despite the shocking number of male caregivers in America, the group is largely understudied. Within the group lies an even more surprising diversity of experiences. AARP’s new insights into America’s male caregivers are both challenging and eye-opening:

Choice

Almost half (49 percent) of male caregivers indicated having no choice in taking on their caregiving role, with the number rising to 60 percent for those caring for a spouse or partner.

Duties

Whether for a parent or spouse, 62 percent of male caregivers were required to help with personal activities like eating, dressing, or bathing, as well as secondary tasks such as cooking, shopping and cleaning. 54 percent of male family caregivers claim a moderate to high difficulty in helping recipients with such personal needs.

Medical tasks

56 percent of overall male caregivers (and 75 percent of those caring for a spouse) performed medical and nursing tasks, with 47 percent of them giving medicine, pills, or injections. 72 percent of them claimed to have no preparation for such tasks.

Help

Over half of male caregivers (63 percent) claimed to be the primary caregiver. While 53 percent of male caregivers had help of some sort, 78 percent of those caring for a spouse had no help at all. 58 percent desired a professional to show them how to perform medical/nursing tasks, with 49 percent desiring hands-on training.

Age

While the average age for a son caring for a parent is 46.4 years old and 62.5 for a male caring for a spouse/partner, 28 percent of male caregivers (approximately 4.5 million men) are millennials, averaging 26.9 years old.

Career

While only 55 percent of female caregivers also have jobs, 66 percent of male caregivers work — most for a full 40-hour week. Of those, 62 percent had to make special workplace arrangements during their time of caregiving, and 48 percent arrived late, left early, or took time off. Fifteen percent even took a leave of absence or switched to part time.

Further, 37 percent didn’t inform their employers about their additional caregiving duties, with the number rising to 45 percent for millennials.

Longevity

At the time of the survey, male caregivers caring for a spouse/partner had already been providing care for an average of 5.1 years, while those caring for a parent had been providing care for 4.1 years. The millennials averaged 2.7 years of caregiving (likely while also trying to work and/or attend school). Over half (52 percent) of all current male family caregivers expect to be caring for someone in the next five years.

Stress levels

62 percent of male family caregivers found their duties to be moderately to very stressful, with 46 percent citing moderate to severe physical strain. Further, 44 percent claimed moderate to high financial stress.

What can be done to help male caregivers?

The first step in helping male caregivers is helping them realize their need for help. AARP, along with other organizations such as the National Family Caregiver Support Program, hope to increase the number of men who self-identify as caregivers and help them seek the support and community they didn’t even know they needed.

While women often recognize much sooner that they’re overwhelmed and in need of support, says Birt, men often have a feeling of insufficiency for needing help.

“Where you can really pull in a male caregiver is focusing on the very practical, tangible things you can do to start,” says Birt. “Tools for you to focus on and use right away. And then you can almost slip in emotional support.”

Slowly, change is happening: men are beginning to see their need for one another while dealing with the challenges of caregiving. One such example is a group of African American men in Philadelphia who meet regularly at their church to talk about their shared caregiving woes. Another example is Jack’s Caregiving Coalition, a group of caregiving men in Minnesota who gather monthly to support one another or simply hang out.

With such strong data and a continued effort for increased awareness, the future of male caregiving is beginning to look a little brighter — one tough man at a time.

This article was originally published on Tincture