Being a family caregiver — that is, providing unpaid care to a parent, spouse, friend or other adult loved one — is hard work. It can also be rewarding work. The struggles, frustrations and stress associated with this caregiving journey cross gender lines. While the “typical” family caregiver is a 49-year-old woman who takes care of a relative, 4 out of 10 caregivers are men. [i]
Men, often due to societal perceptions, have been less likely to talk about the emotional and economic challenges of caregiving. For example, a male family caregiver in a recent focus group summed it up well: “My dad taught me that men don’t cry. I don’t want to be crying on somebody’s shoulder.” From the playgrounds to the basketball court, from television images to song lyrics, the stereotypical drumbeat of manhood is reinforced: Man-up. Be strong. Men are not supposed to cry. Do these sentiments — sometimes spoken, sometimes implied — sound familiar?
Such beliefs can have a lasting impact on the individual who must decide whether to conform to or combat these societal perceptions. They also have implications for industries and workers like health professionals and other service providers, who may not understand the multidimensional role men are playing in what society typically views as predominantly a woman’s role.
The role of family caregiver is one example. There are 40 million family caregivers in the United States helping with everyday activities and personal tasks ranging from bathing, dressing, wound care and medication management to transportation and finance and more.
A recent AARP Public Policy Institute report found that men represent 40 percent of all family caregivers; that’s 16 million male family caregivers.
A diverse group in many respects, these husbands, brothers, sons, sons-in-law, partners, friends, and neighbors are joining—either by choice, obligation, or necessity—the army of family caregivers providing care across the country. They are breaking stereotypes and misconceptions. Contrary to popular belief, male family caregivers are not just managing finances or helping with housework. They are also assisting with dressing, bathing, and toileting as well as performing medical and nursing tasks such as injections, tube feedings and wound care.
Many men feel unprepared or uncomfortable taking on these tasks. Although most male caregivers agree that caregiving is stressful, very few reach out for help; they often avoid talking about their situation with others and don’t feel comfortable discussing the emotional challenges of caregiving.
In many cases, male family caregivers are caring for a spouse or partner. The PPI report shows that spousal caregivers in general face unique challenges, in part because they may lack an adequate support network.
However, there were differences between males caring for a spouse and those caring for a parent.
- They provide more hours of care, and are more likely to be primary caregivers with little to no support from other family members, compared to male family caregivers taking care of a parent or other relative.
- Men caring for a spouse reported having been a caregiver for a longer period of time than other unpaid male family caregivers (5.1 years compared to 3.9).
Caregiving is not easy for any caregiver, men included. A recently released series of videos highlights the unique experiences of male caregivers: a millennial caring for his wife and their young daughter, a partner sharing the challenges and triumphs of caring for a terminally ill partner, a traditional-style support group for African American male family caregivers, and an organization that supports a group of male family caregivers of partners with a terminal illness.
By seeing and then understanding these diverse experiences, challenges and needs, we can develop tools and resources to meet this sizable and growing group of family caregivers where they are. Caregiving is an issue where men and women can work together to support one another along this important yet challenging path.
Jean Accius is vice president of livable communities and long-term services and supports for the AARP Public Policy Institute. He works on Medicaid and long-term care issues.