As a journalist and former caregiver (that's me with my Dad in the photo, during his time living with me in Cape Cod), I pay attention to how caregiving is handled in the media. And, as a man, I often note how rarely men are mentioned in what little coverage caregivers receive. A recent radio piece brought this point home, almost humorously, questioning why male caregivers seem so invisible, without any apparent recognition of the media's own lack of attention to the question's possible answers.
On Nov. 14, Michel Martin, host of NPR's "Tell Me More," presented an opinion piece highlighting the absence of caregiving as a topic in the presidential election. Instead of shining a light on the need to support all caregivers, Martin opted to fall back on the fading chestnut that the lack of attention caregivers receive is, at root, a women's issue. "What about all these exhausted women," she asked, pondering the lack of campaign time spent addressing the needs of women taking care of today's elderly.
Martin outlined a number of the statistics brought to light in the 2009 Caregiving in the U.S. report published by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving. That report's researchers estimated that 66% of U.S. caregivers are women; thus, 34% of those caregivers are men. Obviously, women make up the majority of this population, but the percentage of men taking on this job is growing quickly. In 1996, male caregivers made up only 19% of the total, and some current estimates place today's percentage closer to 40%.
After four paragraphs emphasizing the relationship of caregiving to gender politics, Martin finally remembers men. "Let me not leave men out of this ... For some reason, they are all but invisible in most debates about balancing work and family, maybe because they don't talk about it either."
Or, maybe we are "all but invisible" because many others, like Martin, simply choose not to see us? A year ago, my sister and I spent a good portion of her Christmas visit touring nursing facilities for Dad. In three different facilities, admissions directors all immediately oriented themselves toward my sister, asking questions about Dad's medical conditions that only I could answer. One could almost register visible surprise on their faces as they slowly became aware that I, not my sister, was the primary caregiver.
The challenges this country faces in taking care of its exploding elderly population are just too enormous for us to spend what little prep time we have arguing over caregiving's quickly vanishing gender lines. If you're old enough for AARP membership and your parents are still living - regardless of your sex - this issue will hit you. If you've passed your 70s and have children - regardless of whether they are sons or daughters - it will hit them. This is not a women's issue or a men's issue, it's a people's issue, and all of us who have done or are doing this work have something to add to the conversation.