About four in 10 family caregivers are men—sons, husbands, brothers, sons-in-law, or neighbors. We are nearly always ignored in discussions about caregiving, lost in the stereotype of the family caregiver as a 40-something daughter.
Finally, AARP is shining a much-needed spotlight on these men. A new study by Jean Accius at AARP’s Public Policy Institute paints a valuable, and rare, picture of male family caregivers. The organization has supplemented Jean’s paper with a series of videos highlighting men who care for loved ones with serious illnesses. It is even sponsoring a public service ad starring tough guy actor Danny Trejo. The message: “Caregiving is tougher than tough.”
It is about time somebody recognized men who care for sick or frail loved ones. In fact, it is long past time. Relying mostly on data from the landmark 2015 survey, Caregiving the US, Jean found that the profile of a male caregiver is not very different from a woman caring for a relative or friend. They are roughly the same age, care for family members or friends for about the same four years, on average, and provide much the same kind of support. About half reported that the person they are caring for was hospitalized at least once in the past year and one-quarter of husbands said their spouse had been hospitalized at least three times.
There are a few differences: Men are more likely to be balancing caregiving with longer hours at their paid job, and are slightly less likely to inform their boss about their extra family responsibilities. But like women, nearly half reported having to take time off work to help a family member, and 15 percent said they had to take a leave of absence or go from full- to part-time work.
Then there are other, harder-to measure, differences.
Men, at least Baby Boomer men, may have had less experience caring for family members in the past, even babies. Thus, they may be less comfortable managing personal tasks like bathing a parent.
Another difference: When I talk to consumer groups, men tend to ask to ask for practical advice about, say, finances. Women, by contrast, are more likely to tell their caregiving stories.
It is hard to get men to talk about the challenges they face as caregivers. There is that “you just suck it up and do it,” thing and a real reluctance to acknowledge how hard caregiving is. I was struck by two of the AARP videos: One a group of white guys at a caregiver support group in Minneapolis; the other, a group of somewhat older black men at the First African American Baptist Church in Philadelphia. They shared one overriding feeling: Their support groups helped them understand they were not alone.
That sense of aloneness is common among many caregivers—men and women—because supporting a loved one can be so time-consuming and isolating. You go to work, rush home to take care of dad, fall asleep, and do it all over again the next day. That time to relax with friends—golfing, fishing, the weekly poker game—falls away. And, often, so do your friends.
Women seem to do better sharing their experiences, either with friends or in formal support groups. They even talk about their experiences online. My pal Anne Tumlinson provides one venue at daughterhood.org .
There is no sonhood. Guys just don’t talk about it. And that only increases their isolation.
Kudos to AARP for taking steps to raise the profile of male caregivers. Just as much as women, they should be on the radar screens of policymakers. And raising their profile may help men realize that they are members of a much bigger club than they ever imagined.