More Men Are Becoming Caregivers
The face of today’s caregiver is gradually changing. While the majority of America’s 43 million unpaid caregivers are still female, an increasing number of men — at least 14.5 million — are contributing to the care of spouses, parents, children and other family members.
Younger men are playing an even larger role. Research on male caregiving conducted by The National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP revealed younger men, age 18-49, are contributing even more time and energy caring for another person. The percentage of male caregivers in this age group spikes to an impressive 47%, almost closing the gender gap.
However, unlike their female counterparts, men often shy away from self-identifying as caregivers.
Paul, a 63-year-old retired transportation manager from Minneapolis, Minnesota, is one of those men. Along with his older sister, Paul provided almost daily care for his elderly mother during the last four years of her life. But if anyone described Paul as a caregiver, he’d insist he wasn’t. He preferred to tell people he was “just helping out.”
Whatever men want to call their role, it’s clear they are stepping up in greater numbers to do their share of providing care. Here are three reasons that may account for this significant shift.
- Changing Gender Roles – The roles traditionally accepted by society for men and women have become blurred. Both sexes are in the workforce. Fathers are expected to take an active role in child rearing, and some dad’s stay home to care for kids while their partner is the main breadwinner.
- Geographic Location and Family Structure – Proximity rules in caregiving, especially when it involves aging parents. Today’s adult siblings can be scattered geographically, and this means the sibling (s) who stayed close to home will be likely to assume more of the care responsibilities — no matter their sex. Family structure has also changed significantly, with many families now consisting of only one child. That child, male or female, will be the one providing care.
- Lifespan and Economics – Parents and other relatives are living longer, and caregiving can stretch on for many years, sometimes decades. Female caregivers, who traditionally assumed the lead in unpaid care, find they cannot successfully shoulder all of the caregiving over the long term. Money is also a factor. Not every family has the funds to hire paid workers to assist with care, so the burden falls on adult children and other relatives. Traditionally, women were expected to fill these roles, but now they are actively enlisting the help of spouses, brothers or other male relatives.
Even with the upswing in male participation, closing the gender gap doesn’t necessarily equate to equality in all caregiving areas.
For example, men still spend fewer hours providing care than do their female counterparts. In the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP study, men report clocking 17 hours of caregiving a week compared with almost 22 hours for women.
Additionally, while men are participating more, they gravitate toward different tasks than their female counterparts. Women traditionally continue to handle most of the personal care, such as bathing and toileting, whereas men eschew hands-on care, opting to manage finances and arrange appointments.
Men and women also approach their care responsibilities differently.
While women are socialized to be relationship-oriented, men’s socialization is oriented more toward being assertive and goal-oriented. As caregivers, men problem-solve and then move forward, preferring not to dwell on their choices. For their part, women tend to linger much longer over options and then doubt their decisions in retrospect.
A 2012 study by researchers at Bowling Green State University confirms these gender differences and also reveals how males cope more effectively with the mental strain that comes with providing long-term care.
“We found men seem better at dealing with caregiver stress because they take a ‘block and tackle’ approach to caregiving tasks,” wrote I-Fen Lin, associate professor and lead researcher on the study.
“They complete a caregiving task and move on to the next thing. Conversely, we found women are more socialized to be nurturing, but they internalize their caregiving performance with constant worry and anxiety, thus, leading to higher stress levels and more persistent stress,” added Lin.
Even with different perspectives and response to stress, it’s apparent both sexes can make important contributions during the care journey. Caregiving, one considered only ‘women’s work,’ is on track to actively engage both sexes as more and more people are required to care for others.
Nancy Wurtzel, a frequent contributor to ThirdAge, is the editor of the blog www.DatingDementia.com.