Men who care Unique challenges, unique solutions

Many of us imagine the average family caregiver as a middle-aged woman looking after her father or mother, who perhaps lives in the next town over or even in the same house. But this is 2014 and that picture has changed. Families are more dispersed and diverse, with the average family caregiver living 15–40 km away from his or her loved one, and both men and women taking on full-time work. These shifting demographics have resulted in the emergence of a new breed of primary caregivers: men. Statistics Canada has estimated that almost half of Canada’s family caregivers in 2012 were men, and the number is growing.

Even though they are often hesitant, or less familiar with the territory, many men are now assuming the responsibility of caring for aging parents, ill spouses or spouses with a disability, siblings who require care or friends and lovers in need.

Are men from Mars?

Men generally see themselves as “task managers” and learn to be project-oriented, meaning their approach to caregiving is often more managerial. All caregivers face competing demands but men, still more often than women, may have no choice but to balance full-time employment with their caregiving responsibilities. In general, men tend to achieve a work/life balance by segmenting their lives into “commitment areas” in order to effectively cope with multiple tasks. In my experience, this same approach works well for men when it comes to caregiving.

Because of their more “managerial” style, male family caregivers are more likely to function well at a distance. Remote-care technology is one solution that has evolved to meet the needs of long-distance caregivers. These systems and devices allow monitored care by setting medication reminders, home security and more.

What you can do:

If your loved one lives alone, you may feel more comfortable if they use a personal emergency response system that can be activated after a fall or other health emergency to alert medical professionals for prompt assistance. These devices are waterproof and impact resistant, and can be worn on a necklace, wristband or belt clip. Remote-care systems can also provide environmental monitoring, with devices in the home alerting a family member if exterior doors have been left open or if smoke or carbon monoxide detectors have been set off.

Men will often seek out support and information about caregiving online. Take, for example, the Male Caregiver Community, a new online caregiving resource that is specifically for men. It was designed as a forum to encourage discussion between male caregivers regarding their concerns and triumphs, as well as to research conditions and treatments, share caregiving challenges and seek the advice of professionals. Caregivers can access articles and archived discussions on a myriad of topics related to healthcare, care options and avoiding caregiver burnout, and advice on other issues that often arise when caring for a loved one.

Different caring strategies

Within the male caregiver population, there are differences between men who provide care for their spouses and those who provide care for their parents or siblings.

Care for spouses

Research suggests that the number of men who assume caregiving responsibilities for their spouses is likely to grow. Consider that Alzheimer Society of Canada estimates there are approximately 800,000 individuals living with cognitive impairment. One in 20 Canadians older than 65 years and one in four older than 85 years are affected by Alzheimer’s disease, which disproportionately affects women. The result is that many more men will be taking care of their spouses as they age.

Caregiving husbands have different experiences to caregiving sons, brothers, fathers and grandsons. Husbands are more likely to be not only the primary, but also, the sole care provider for their spouses, relying very little on support from outside sources or other family members. Men caring for their spouses also tend to provide more personal care and assistance than those caring for other family members. In addition to the typical demands and challenges associated with caregiving, husbands often also carry the burden of knowing they are losing companionship. As a result, a man faced with the painful decision to place his spouse in a long-term care home may feel depressed, and as though he has failed in his role as a caretaker and provider.

What you can do:

  • If you are a husband providing care for your spouse, don’t try to do it all by yourself. Accept help from friends, family and local support groups.
  • Being an effective caregiver is a proactive job. Educate yourself about your spouse’s condition, care options and available resources that can help you.

Care for parents

Sons who care for aging parents may encounter a very different set of problems to husbands caring for spouses. For example, providing hands-on personal care (e.g., bathing, grooming, dressing) can be a very sensitive and often uncomfortable task, for both the caregiver and the care receiver, especially if you are looking after a mother or grandmother. Effectively switching roles with your parents and becoming their care provider can be a very challenging experience for all involved.

Male caregivers can benefit from the experiences of other men who have been in similar situations. Broaching topics such as finances with parents can be trying under normal circumstances; it can feel all but impossible when determining how to best ensure your aging father is keeping his chequebook balanced. These situations can be tense yet often occur in the course of caregiving, as parents and sons renegotiate their roles and the nuances of their relationship, and find the delicate balance between assistance and independence.

What you can do:

  • Ask your peers for advice.
  • Discuss topics with other men who have cared for loved ones. Although uncomfortable, most scenarios are manageable.
  • Offer gentle suggestions, reminders and offers of assistance or co-management.
  • Ensure that your aging relative feels in control and that you respect his or her independence and dignity.

Finding a balance

Male caregivers can often find it difficult to balance their responsibilities at home with those at work. While many companies offer services or time off to those providing care for loved ones, men are less likely to tap into these valuable resources. This may be because of a general lack of awareness about benefits, as men are less likely to discuss their caregiving responsibilities in the workplace.

For men who don’t rely on outside resources to help in their care efforts, necessities such as taking extra time off and leaving early or arriving late to work may be perceived as flagging performance, rather than the result of caregiving responsibilities temporarily taking priority. Simply having a frank conversation with a boss, supervisor or human resources professional can greatly reduce the stress a male caregiver may feel while trying to find a comfortable work/life balance.

In addition to balancing work and caregiving tasks, many male caregivers are faced with a sense of isolation because of the lack of social and family networks from which to draw energy, support and encouragement. Support networks are vitally important to caregivers. Those who try to provide care without proper support or a back-up system in place—regardless of their gender—will be affected by caregiver burnout. A caregiver experiencing the symptoms of burnout may begin to lose sleep, eat poorly and make detrimental health choices, all of which will have a negative effect on their caregiving abilities.

Use personal experience

More social supports for male caregivers must be put in place to help them succeed in their roles—one of the most common obstacles reported by men is the lack of safe or comfortable forums in which they can freely discuss their concerns. Although information on various caregiving topics is readily available, it is often interaction with other caregivers that offers the best support.

Networks for male family caregivers do exist, and can provide the information and advice that men need to address many of their caregiving concerns. Furthermore, businesses and communities need to develop better lines of communication with male caregivers and to identify and solve their unique obstacles, so that men are empowered to provide the best care possible.

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