Most people think of family caregivers as women taking care of their aging parents or children. What many don’t know is that 40 percent of the 40 million family caregivers in this country are men. These men range in age from 20-something to 60-something and up. Some step into the role suddenly after a family member or friend is injured or falls ill; for others, the role increases gradually as parents age or someone close is diagnosed with a fatal illness.
All told, more than 16 million men are serving as family caregivers. They are husbands taking care of their spouses or partners, sons taking care of Mom or Dad, and friends taking care of neighbors. These men are breaking stereotypes and misconceptions. They are joining, either by choice or necessity, the army of family caregivers providing care across this country.
In most cases, these men are also “invisible.” In many ways, our society and systems of care fail to acknowledge their existence.
On Father’s Day, the day that so many of us celebrate our role models, The AARP Public Policy Institute salutes the millions of men in this country who love, support and provide for their children, and the millions more who provide care for either an aging parent, spouse, friend, or other loved one.
We honor male family caregivers of all ages and backgrounds, many of whom have had to make drastic life changes—changes like adjusting their work schedules or leaving the workforce altogether, or ceasing travel and other leisure activities—all to fulfill their caregiving duties.
We also honor those who have mustered the courage to talk to someone about the emotional, financial, and physical aspects of their caregiving experience. While the term ‘support group’ typically might have a lot of men running for the exit, Jack’s Caregiver Coalition, a Minnesota-based non-profit that offers support and hospitality to male caregivers, has gotten around such obstacles. Without using that loaded term, the group has found creative ways to get men talking about their personal experiences. One program that Jack’s offers, called Jack-to-Jack, connects men who are family caregivers with others who have been in their shoes. And instead of sitting in the stereotypical support group circle, they might connect over a beer or a round of golf.
We can learn something from Jack’s. What are some ways we can celebrate and support the important male role models in our lives this week? Here are some suggestions:
Invite conversation. It’s easy to lose your sense of self in a caregiving role. Since men are less likely to express the emotional strain and stress related to caregiving, it’s critical to prompt the conversation. Remember to ask the male family caregiver, “How are you holding up?” and “What can I do to support you?”
Lend an empathetic ear. It tends to be hard for men to talk about the challenges they face as caregivers. There is that “you just suck it up and do it” mentality, as well as a real reluctance to acknowledge how hard caregiving is. Nevertheless, male family caregivers want to know they’re not crazy to find their challenges difficult, and that they are not in the battle alone. Remind them of that.
Know the available resources. All caregivers, including men, need meaningful support. They’re in great need of hands-on training to perform tasks that may be difficult or feel uncomfortable, like assisting with bathing or dressing, or performing complicated medical/nursing tasks such as giving injections, tube feeding and wound care. AARP’s Caregiver Resource Center has a wealth a tools and resources to meet men where they are on their caregiving journey.
Male family caregivers are stepping up to the plate in record numbers. I hope you will be there to support them, asking for help, and leaning on others when they grow weary from the journey. After all, they deserve the best care we can offer.
Jean Accius is a nationally recognized thought leader on aging, caregiving and long-term care policy. He is Vice-President of the Long Term Services & Supports and Livable Communities Group within the AARP Public Policy Institute.