Reflections on Men as Caregivers
Often, when we think of a family caregiver, it’s a woman that comes to mind. According to a 2015 study conducted by AARP and National Alliance for Caregiving, the typical caregiver is a middle-aged woman who spends about 24 hours a week providing care for 4 years.
More recently, the Family Caregiver Alliance published a comprehensive report on American caregivers. It demonstrated that over 75% of caregivers are women – so it’s easy to see where this generalization comes from.
With that being said, more men are stepping up to the plate as caregivers than ever before. A study completed in 2017 found that at least 40% of family caregivers are men, and when it comes to spousal care, men and women are half and half.
Caregivers in Our Lives
Over the past 5 years, I’ve personally watched my childhood friend and his sister provide care for their father. Between the two of them, they spent at least every evening – and often every night – looking after both of their parents. His father’s declining health took a toll that many don’t consider.
I witnessed the siblings withdraw from social activities and become less active, gaining weight. I did my best to support them as their relationships suffered. This reality is far from uncommon… Anyone who has taken on the role of caregiver, however large or small, knows the challenges that this responsibility creates.
The experience enhanced my appreciation for these heroes – of any gender or age – who sacrifice their own lives to provide for a family member who needs it. I saw the guilt, the doubt, and the despair that my friend faced as he cared for his father. I heard all of the unanswered questions regarding whether he was doing enough.
It’s shaken my perspective on the “why” behind an overwhelming majority of caregivers being women.
Barriers That Men Face
The Gap in Emotional Support
As I touched on above, the role of a caregiver can be an isolating one. Family caregivers face challenges such as a lack of sleep, time, and privacy, as well as emotional, physical, and financial stress. Couple these issues with the pain of seeing a loved one suffer, and it’s easy to see why family caregivers are stretched thin.
However, in terms of support, women are more likely to both ask for and receive help. Although we’re heading into 2020, gender stereotypes still rule: men do not have the same access to emotional support that women do.
While 1 in 10 men experience depression and anxiety, less than half of them seek help. Half of men reported that they felt more depressed than they admit to friends and family. In 2017, men died by suicide more than 3 times as often as women.
The Pressures to Provide
When comparing historic gender roles, it’s become a bit of a shouting match. Traditionally, women are expected to be caregivers, and men to be providers. Though these roles are being challenged, they continue to shape our society.
Because men are often looked to as the “bread-winners,” the demands of their career are frequently prioritized over domestic life. Men are less likely to ask for more time to tend to their families than women. This is due to a very legitimate fear of being stigmatized and experiencing negative repercussions in their careers. Many men are forced to choose between providing material security or kindred relationships for their households.
A compelling conclusion published by the American Psychological Association in 2017 blasted conventional wisdom around this topic. It showed that men and women face extremely similar challenges in finding a balance between work and home. This study took place over 30 years and included more than 350 other studies on the topic.
How We Can Make a Difference
Changing the Narrative
It’s no secret that caring for a family member – regardless of your gender – is a stressful, straining role. All caregivers need support so that they can give it back to those they are caring for. So how can we encourage caregivers in our lives and make their job a little bit easier?
Well, we can start by making their role more acceptable and accessible. By closing the gender gap and making the role of caregiving easier for men to take on, we can also help to relieve caregiving women.
Because men are less likely to take up the caregiving mantle, let’s focus on a few ways that everyone can help to change this narrative.
Show Your Support!
This could seem like a given, but tangible reassurance and approval from a friend, spouse, family member, or coworker could make all the difference. If you know a guy who is providing unpaid care, let him know that you support his efforts.
Don’t be patronizing – be practical. Show him your support by helping him take care of other responsibilities rather than with exaggerated compliments. This demonstrates genuine encouragement, as well as validation of the challenges being faced.
Be a Shoulder to Lean On
As discussed earlier, a lot of men don’t find it easy to receive the same emotional support that women may take for granted. In many ways, emotional connection is perceived as a weakness in our society, when in reality, it is anything but.
Caregivers experience an incredible amount of stress in many aspects of their lives. Take the caregiver you know out for a casual drink or meal so that they have the opportunity to blow off some steam. Ask them how they’re doing, even if only for a few minutes of conversation.
This lets caring men know not only that they’re supported in their role, but that others appreciate the challenges of their situation.
Invite Them Along
Caregiving is an extremely isolating task. This is due in part to the complex needs of those being cared for, as well as the investment of time required.
Do your best to give the caregiver in your life extra opportunities for fun and social activities. The more chances they have to get out and enjoy themselves, the better, as their schedule is likely very full.
Even if they turn you down continually, it’s still worth letting them know that the opportunity is there. This kind of inclusion can make all the difference in the life of a caregiver, even if they have a hard time making it to an event. It reinforces their identity outside of the role
Caregivers Need Care, Too
Whether or not you identify with those who are caregivers, remember how their role impacts our world as a whole. Caregivers are there when others can’t be.
While we cannot see the future, at The Hearth, we know all too well how quickly life can change. Support the caregivers in your world – you never know when you will need their strength and wisdom.
To my childhood friend I say… Thank you for being a friend. Thank you for being a man.
Thank you for caring!