When the caregiver is a male
By ETHEL M. SHARP
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 24, 2002


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It's estimated that the family provides almost 90 percent of all home care for older family members. Who are these caregivers? The highest percentage giving this care are adult daughters of aging parents. Next highest percentage are wives, then daughters-in-law, husbands and then sons. Grandchildren and other relatives follow.
It's estimated that the family provides almost 90 percent of all home care for older family members. Who are these caregivers? The highest percentage giving this care are adult daughters of aging parents. Next highest percentage are wives, then daughters-in-law, husbands and then sons. Grandchildren and other relatives follow.

Because there is so much attention given to women, we tend to overlook the men who are giving direct hands-on care. More and more men are entering the family caregiver ranks.

A friend of mine, Father Jean Robitaille, is a missionary priest, who worked in Zambia for many years. He returned to Florida, for what he thought would be a short while, to take care of his mother, who has osteoporosis.

"I thought after my mother's bones had healed I would go back to Africa. But no sooner had she healed than other bones would break. Then my father began to fail. He had a series of strokes and the bathing and personal care became part of my job. He had a catheter, and so I got a trailer nearby so I could have easy access to help them. My father eventually died but I continue to take care of my mother, who is now 83 years old.

"What started out to be a short trip home has become a job that has lasted 15 years. I don't have any regrets. My parents took care of me and did for me, and now it's my turn to give back -- there's a lot of freedom in that if you have the right attitude and spirit."

In the early 1900s, about 200,000 men 80 years old and older lived in the United States. By 1990, the number had risen to more than 2-million. Today, many men in their 50s, 60s and 70s have fathers who are in their 70s, 80s and 90s.

For the most part, daughters often accept the caregiver role because of internalized beliefs that parent care is their responsibility. A dependent parent might also prefer that the daughter assume this role, although it reflects the cultural assignment of gender-appropriate roles. But the gender-role stereotype of caregiving is changing.

There has been a renewed sense of obligation for the care of an older family member by both men and women. There are, however, vast differences in the kind of work usually performed by each. Men were socialized to delegate many caregiving tasks to women, so men have not been inclined to take on any in-depth caregiving.

But I know of many men who have had enormous involvement as caregivers, sometimes stemming from early life experiences. My son-in-law explained that caregiving was a part of his life as a boy. His mother had Lou Gehrig's disease. As a boy of 13, he helped her into and out of bed and had to feed her.

In my own family, my children were very much a part of the care of my mother-in-law, who was a stroke victim. Many men, whether the experience of caregiving was early in life or later, and although the responsibilities were tedious and emotional, have felt greatly rewarded by the personal involvement.

When it comes to the father-son relationship, caregiving becomes more complicated. In many cases, the fathers and sons have failed to develop a close relationship. I've heard many times how difficult it is to try to care for a father if he was a person the son felt he never really knew and who was always critical and controlling.

Too many men define themselves and their relationships with their sons, daughters and wives by exercising authority. Grown sons feel intimidated around their fathers because the fathers are still trying to demonstrate a sense of power and authority. In this outdated mode of masculinity, the fathers still believe they are the invulnerable male. Unfortunately, fathers and sons are unhappy and suffering. Older fathers may need help but are unable to ask or accept it, and the sons feel inadequate.

Many men live out their elder years lonely. Their outdated mode of masculinity didn't allow them to make the early emotional investment in their sons.

The challenge for older men, their sons and grandsons is to begin to embrace a new model of masculinity, one based on open and honest sharing of life history, events and personal information. Relationships are not about accomplishments and money; they are about people. Talking about the ups and downs, the imperfections and the mistakes allows understanding. It also helps a relationship to grow on a new level.

With men living longer, new dimensions in relationships are needed. Start by letting go of negative memories. Reach out by encouraging good communication through life stories, information, family history and experiences. Be supportive, open, kind, thoughtful and caring about the needs of others.

Caregiving is an intense experience. It causes introspection and forces a re-examination of relationships. With a renewed understanding, it can free you up to focus on the rewards of giving care. The reward for the male caregiver must lie in the awareness that he is giving the best care possible.

Sometimes it means forgiving a parent's shortcomings. It isn't easy, but in the experience of self-giving, the unexpected often happens. The effort expended in a difficult but worthwhile situation often is rewarded with a deeply felt sense of contentment and peace. The emotional involvement, which may not have existed before, emerges. For some male caregivers, coming together in this way marks a turning point in their lives and brings them closer to the parent than they ever were.

- Ethel M. Sharp is executive director of Aging Matters Inc., a nonprofit network for family caregivers and elder care. You can write her in care of Seniority, the St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. When seeking more information, please enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope and include your telephone number, with area code.


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"It was once written "To thine own self be true". But how do we know who we really are? Every man must confront the monster within himself, if he is ever to find peace without. .." Outer Limits(Monster)

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"It was once written "To thine own self be true". But how do we know who we really are? Every man must confront the monster within himself, if he is ever to find peace without. .." Outer Limits(Monster)