Being a male caregiver
“Hard times don’t create heroes. It is during the hard times when the hero within us is revealed.” Bob Riley
Both genders take on the responsibility of caring for their elderly, disabled, or chronically ill family member or friend. While we typically think of caregivers as women, men are just as capable of offering nurturing, loving, and effective care for their loved ones in need. We can see the noteworthy shift in gender distribution in caregiving duties in the past years. Did you know that 41 percent of the 53 million Americans caring for a loved one are males?
Most people have the perception that carers are exclusively female. You pictured it: a middle-aged woman – a wife, daughter, or granddaughter – providing at-home care to the ailed family member and aging seniors. However, while this is still the typical demographic of a family carer, the latest statistics show that we are progressing towards gender equality in this sphere and that men increased their share in family caregiving.
Many men have grown up in a family, community or cultural environment where females are primary family carers. Caregiving tasks are perceived and labelled as “women’s work”. In the past, male carers didn’t carry much of the caregiving burden as their female counterparts. However, with various changes in modern living and family structures, we can see this role distribution in caregiving is changing too. More men find themselves in this position because it’s the best or sometimes only solution when an ill spouse, parent or another relative requires help in care.
Male family caregivers in numbers
In general, there is a significant rise in the number of informal family caregivers worldwide. The rapidly aging population and the burdened formal healthcare systems due to the global pandemic situation are putting added health and care responsibilities to the shoulders of many families. There are 53 million unpaid informal carers in the USA and 13.6 million in the UK only, with millions of men are carers for their ailing and aging loved ones.
According to the “American Association of Retired Persons” (AARP) and “National Alliance for Caregiving” (NAC) latest 2020 report, 39% or two out of five unpaid caregivers in the United States are men, which is a significant rise compared to 28% in 1997, 33% in 2009 and 34% in 2012. The margin is steadily getting slimmer, and it seems that we are going towards the more gender-balanced population of family caregivers. However, there is still a significant discrepancy in the caregiving responsibilities, the number of hours and the type of care each gender provides.
Men caregivers in the latest statistics report in the USA
of 53 million informal caregivers are male
felt they had no choice in taking on this responsibility
are employed while caregiving
are caring for two or more adults
are married, while 26% are single, never married
reported their caregiving moderately to very stressful
is the average age of male caregivers
is the average age of adult children caring for an aging parent
is the average age of men who care for a spouse
What caused the rise?
The shift most likely occurred due to changes in demographics. The major contributing factors are the increase of the elderly population and longer life expectancy. The systems cannot cover the rapidly aging population’s increased needs, so seniors often rely exclusively on family support. Many men had to step into the caregiving to provide long-term care for aging parents and other elderly family members.
Also, dementia is a growing challenge in senior care, and it’s more prevalent among women. With them outnumbering men 2 to 1 in dementia diagnoses, many aged husbands take care of their wives with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. According to the AARP report, in general, and not limited to senior care, an estimated 3 million men in the United States alone care for an ill spouse full time.
Is this a job of the future?
The home care jobs have already doubled over the past ten years, and the demand is only growing. The need for senior and long-term care is increasing rapidly to follow up with the aging of the massive baby boom generation along with the longer life expectancy. By 2050, the number of persons 65 and older will nearly double. It is estimated that there will be 95 million persons of age 65 and older in the United States alone by 2060. Twenty percent will live until age 90, and 1 in 2 will possibly develop dementia after age 85, to mention just one of the chronic geriatric illnesses. With these prognoses, it is evident that more persons will inevitably become caregivers, whether for parents or spouses.
This added need cannot be covered only by women. It is required that men step in and fill the gap, not only as carers for family members but also as professional caregivers. The shortage of caregivers opens a possibility for more people to seek their professional vocation in this field. But it is necessary to create better and effective policies to support carers and make the profession attractive to both male and female workers. More gender-equal caregivers workforce can also balance valuing caregiving as a career, both in financial terms and as a rewarding occupation option.
Men as family caregivers
Different persons will react and adapt to new caregiving circumstances differently. Some duties are highly emotionally or physically taxing for any carer irrespective of their gender. In many aspects, male carers resemble their female counterparts.
Both genders say they had little to no choice about taking on caregiving responsibilities, no matter if it was for a parent, a spouse or partner, child, or another relative. Like many female carers, men are often unprepared and overwhelmed by these circumstances. Both genders are more prone to health problems and depression than non-caregivers. Both men and women carers cover all types of caregiving assignments: help with daily activities and medical attention, and also provide personal care, including the help with eating, dressing, bathing, and toileting. At the same time and regardless of gender, some people simply are not fitted for this role – and that is completely fine.
Although the caregiving responsibilities are now less gendered, there are a few differences between men and women as family carers regarding how they approach and cope with caregiving and its burden.
Self-identifying as family caregiver.
Men less self-identify themselves as caregivers. They accept the circumstances, learn to handle the situation and do their duties, but often don’t see it as a new role. Because of the stereotypes, men as caregivers are often underestimated and overlooked to hold that position, even within their families. Self-identifying as caregiver is important to open a new perspective on their situation and understand what that entitles. While it seems providing care is more intuitive for women, men need to learn to play this role. So, identifying it as such can help them adapt faster and find ways to manage it better.
The social stigma and stereotypes.
Regardless of the circumstances, caregiving presents a multitude of demands. Any family carer is vulnerable to problems that affect them physically, mentally, and emotionally. For male caregivers, however, some of the longstanding stereotypes can make the experience more challenging. With the traditional misconception of caregiving as solely women’s work and associating caring and many of these tasks with femininity, many male caregivers struggle with the constraints of holding to the “expected” masculine values. The macho culture can be cruel to male caregivers – admitting being the carer is frequently seen as a weakness and stigmatized.
Discrimination of male caregivers at the workplace and in the institutions.
This reluctance to declare oneself publicly as a family carer is especially evident in the workplace. Because of this unfortunately too frequent caregiver discrimination in the workplace and the fear of being dismissed, both genders are hesitant in telling their employer about their caregiving obligations. Carers are sometimes forced to make changes to the work situation, especially in high-intensity care situations. This may be a leave, flexible work schedule, or a combination of the two. But companies are not always willing to make these types of compromises. Sometimes, employers even terminate an employee because of the assumptions that there is a conflict between the demands of the work and one’s caregiving duties. They presume the employee is unable to be a caregiver and an efficient worker at the same time, seeing her or him as less competent and not committed to the job.
Additionally, many employers policies are based on the gender roles generalizations and deny men equal opportunity to be family carers. This includes paternal leave, caring for ill partner or spouse, and aging parents, making caregiving and job even more troublesome to balance for many.
With a few or no benefits in the workplace to help male family carers, there are plenty of other challenges they face in social interactions. Some male caregivers encounter the reluctance towards them in not so expected places, like from relatives, neighbors, medical personnel or social service agencies. Their position or needs are not taken seriously or seen as temporary. This especially applies in cases of the opposite sex care recipients, like son caring for his mother.
The court case of a male caregiver in the fight for gender equality.
The services and laws are also sometimes blind to male carers. The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s name is the synonym for women’s rights and gender equality. Ginsburg was not solely fighting for women, but on establishing equal rights for both genders. Notably, her career-defining moment is the case of a male caregiver “Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue” in 1972. Ginsburg represented Charlez Moritz, an unmarried journalist in his sixties from Denver, Colorado, solely caring for his disabled, elderly mother. Moritz filed for a caregiving tax deduction to hire a caretaker to help him care for his 93-year-old mother, but he had been denied a deduction because he was an unmarried man. Being male and unmarried made Moritz’s application for such a deduction inadmissible according to federal tax law. Simply, the law at the time did not recognize Charles Moritz as a caregiver, and it was blind to his case. The tax deduction was limited to “a woman, a widower or divorcée, or a husband whose wife is incapacitated or institutionalized.” The law rested on a stereotype: women are carers, not men. Practically speaking, it is expected from daughter to take care of her aging parents or relatives, while men are busy earning a living, so taking care of sick or aging family members doesn’t fit their agenda. Ginsburg demonstrated to the all men judges that sex discrimination hurts men as well. This was the first gender-discrimination case argued in court that challenged traditional gender roles and stereotypes. She won the case, and this paved the way for many changes to follow.
Approach to family caregiving and coping with the burden.
In general, men tend to approach caregiving as a situation that needs to be fixed and resolved. They tend to look for pragmatic solutions, organize and delegate assignments. They are also more assertive than their female counterparts when advocating for loved ones with authority figures, medical staff or services. They concentrate on completing the task and moving on to the next thing. Their focus is on the practical side rather than on their emotions about caregiving. While men mostly focus on “how” in caregiving, female caregivers also add “why”, leading to constant worry, anxiety and higher stress levels. Based on the reports showing that men face lower levels of depression and psychological distress, it appears they cope with it better than their female counterparts. Although their pragmatism looks like an effective strategy, it might have another side.
Caregiving is complex and challenging, and many things simply cannot be put on the to-do agenda. The realization that not everything can be fixed and marked as done leaves many men feeling ineffective, and as if they are failing. This emotional strain, in the long run, makes them prone to depression. The tension comes from other sources too. Providing special care can be a substantial financial strain upon families. Men usually feel obliged to provide financial support for the family. That sense of obligation is causing them additional emotional pressure. This, in particular, applies to men baby-boomers and other “sandwich caregivers” – sandwiched between elder care and child care. As they must balance work, family needs, and the caregiving duties, their stress is intensified. The frustration can often turn into anger, despair, exhaustion, and burnout.
Asking for help and support.
Although they struggle and need support, men are less likely to discuss issues and stress they endure as carers. Stress is intrinsic in caregiving and undoubtedly affects every family carer, so researchers say it may be that men are just underreporting their difficulties. They usually wait until the major crisis occurs when they can no longer provide the required support alone. Women generally talk more openly about their caregiving burden and are less hesitant to look for the necessary assistance.
The reasons why men downplay and don’t report their burden can be various – because they are less likely to admit their negative feelings about caregiving, or they have mixed emotions which they don’t know how to process and share, or because the acknowledgement of burden would be a sign of weakness and culturally unacceptable. These unspoken emotions make the isolation that too often comes with the caregiving even deeper for men.
Fortunately, as their presence grows and the discomfort and stigma of talking about their duties declines, male caregivers are less marginalized and more open to seeking support and advice. As anyone who cares for an elderly, disabled, or chronically ill family member or friend, they need to learn how to lessen the care burden, be efficient and avoid burnout.
Assistance with the activities of daily life and personal care.
Practical skills and efficiency are the topmost requirements in providing care. Most men are very little or not prepared for caregiving’s practical sides, especially for challenging hands-on duties, such as nursing, medication administration, or intimate care. They show preference to manage care rather than to administer it. Men most often help with finances, arrange care, and do other, less hands-on tasks. But the most difficult duties, like bathing, toileting and dressing, are still mostly assigned to female carers because they accept the intimate aspects of care more naturally.
Personal care can be quite a challenge, uncomfortable and physically and emotionally hard for any carer, especially toileting and bathing. There are distinctions in how difficult these assignments are perceived depending on the relationship with the care recipient. This is particularly evident in male carers of an adult non-spousal recipient of the opposite sex. It is more comfortable for a man to provide intimate care for his wife, but it can be extra stressful for an adult son caring for his mother, or a nephew for his aunt. It is a bit easier for men who were involved in child care and upbringing before becoming carers, so they went through bathing and changing diapers and gained a lot of hands-on experience.
Talking about hands-on assistance, men are often physically stronger than their female counterparts, helping them do certain assignments easier. This can be quite helpful in transferring, mobility or bathing, especially when caring for seniors.
So, which gender is better?
There is no better gender for a carer role. No carer is perfect and knows how to handle everything. Although it looks like caregiving is more intuitive for females, the best practices cannot be measured only with a female yardstick. Every gender brings some advantages to it, and all carers are doing their best. In the middle ground, we have to pick up the best solutions and approaches from both genders and find effective practices to support an easier caregiving process for anyone taking on this assignment.
Advice for a male caregiver
While caregiving can be rewarding, all caregivers suffer a similar physical and emotional strain. Although there are differences in how each gender copes with caregiving stress, there are some universal recommendations to have in the account for any caregiver’s well-being.
Do your research.
Acquire as much information as possible about your care recipient’s specific health conditions and the services and community support groups available in your area. This will help you navigate the process and get the best options for ailing loved one, your family and you.
Acquire practical skills.
Probably many assignments will be challenging at the beginning. As with anything else, practice makes perfect. You can ask healthcare providers for advice regarding medical and nursing tasks. Investigate if there are any courses in your community where you can attend in person. If there are no other options available, you can always find resources online.
It is human to error.
Caregiving is a constant learning experience, and no day is the same. Don’t be discouraged if something is difficult. The learning curve can vary significantly for different assignments, but you’ll get there. Ask your healthcare providers for recommendations and advice, especially for at-home nursing and medication administration.
Ask others for help before the crisis.
It is not a weakness to ask for help from family and friends. You cannot do everything alone. Maintaining stoicism doesn’t help you nor you the person you care for. Make sure your family members are on the same page with you regarding all the duties.
Talk to other male caregivers.
Look into professional or online support resources. There are many online all-male support groups on different forums and Facebook, with men sharing their experiences, and you can use their piece of advice. If it’s more comfortable for you, you can join discussions anonymously, only using your email address.
Consider respite care occasionally.
It is entirely ok to take a break. We all need to recharge our batteries. This doesn’t mean you are neglecting your care recipient. If you are decompressed and rested, you will provide better help.
Process your emotions.
Caregiving can be overwhelming and brings a lot of mixed and conflicting feelings. It takes time to adjust, but don’t ignore or bury them. Share your thoughts – it helps tremendously.
Don’t take all personally.
Sometimes caregivers don’t feel enough appreciated for their efforts. Even if you feel like that, remember the importance of what you do. Always have in count the state of your care recipient and the difficulties of that dependent position.
Accept providing personal care of a loved one as a natural process.
If you need to provide intimate care for you loved one and having issues with that, try a different approach. It’s a body the same you have, with its physiological needs. Make it a routine, and don’t overthink. It is not easy at the beginning, but it gets less unnatural every next time.
Self-care is non-negotiable.
Give yourself the time you need to take care of you. Find time for whatever relaxes you, be it a sports activity, hobby, movies, or simply a drink with friends. Self-care should be your priority because you are the only person who can take care of your loved one.
Use digital tools.
Caregivers need practical solutions for their daily challenges. Luckily, there are many new technologies and various digital solutions, that can be easily incorporated into the at-home care process. One of them is Gherry App. Created with caregivers and their needs in mind, this app gathers all necessary tools to empower and enhance caregiving and better care for everyone.
Give yourself a tap on the shoulder.
Honor your strengths and achievements. Caregivers are superheroes. If you don’t believe it, take a look at this great video ad made for the AARP campaign with Danny Trejo, and in the most fun way be reminded that “caregiving is tougher than tough.”
While women used to dominate the caregiving field, once marginalized male carers are now becoming more common and accepted at this position. However, social expectations from men and longstanding carer stereotypes continue to perpetuate role bias. The shift in perception is necessary and critical. We need to transform outdated traditions and practices for a more gender-egalitarian society and ensure policies that recognize both genders equally as family caregivers who fully participate and share caring responsibilities.
The focus should be on supporting caregivers, not on their gender and differences. Gender is only one facet of a caregiver’s identity. While there are perhaps differences in how they handle certain situations and problems, both genders face the same challenges while caring for others through their sickness or disability. It is essential to recognize the crucial and irreplaceable role, both male and female caregivers have as cornerstones in the society – and with the current rapidly growing senior population and demand for elder care now as never before. It is urgently necessary to provide them with more accessible assistance for their relentless and often under-appreciated work. Increasing their visibility will force society changes that are mandatory to sustain the rising need for at-home care and alleviate the growing pressure on family carers.