Male Caregivers' Visibility Increasing as Society Changes

Posted by Carol Bradley Bursack on June 1, 2017
When I was growing up, family caregiving didn’t have a lot of visibility and, if people did think about it, the assumption was that the woman in the family was the caregiver. Sadly, some people actually viewed male caregivers with suspicion, or at the very least, they saw them as unmanly.

By the 90’s I found myself heavily involved in family caregiving so I started looking for others doing the same thing. I felt the need for support, but it was hard to find. Books on the topic were rare, the internet was still in its infancy and even friends seemed to disappear.

Partly as a catharsis and partly to help others, I decided to write my own book on family caregiving. The plan was to interview as many caregivers as possible, and I definitely wanted the book to include men. That was a challenge because the male caregivers that I did find tended to be reluctant to talk with me about it. I persisted, however, and, in the end, one out of every four caregivers represented in my book was a man. I discovered my ratio was perfect. National statistics placed male caregivers at 25 percent of the caregiving population in 2005.

Fortunately, both the attitudes toward male caregivers and their numbers have changed. In 2010, AARP statistics stated that one in three caregivers was a man. In 2015, a joint study conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP shows the ranks of male caregivers at approximately 40 percent.

Men slow to seek support

Conventional wisdom has it that men are less likely to report publicly on emotionally laden topics and also less likely to seek support. My own experience reflects that. As a person who has now spent years moderating a general online eldercare forum, I’ve looked out for men to join in so that I could help them feel welcome. While there may be men lurking, active involvement among men has been slow to come.

This changes somewhat when one goes to spousal caregiving forums. There, you’ll often find more men seeking support. Perhaps it’s because these men became aware, when they took the time to look around, that other older men were also providing care for their spouses.

While the internet is popular for all types of support because of its convenience and anonymity, doctors often suggest in-person groups for caregivers because the human contact can be very healing. It’s possible that men, who typically don’t discuss emotional topics with their friends as often as women do, may benefit from in-person groups even more than their female counterparts. Therefore, I think that the doctors are right in steering any man who is willing to try it toward in-person contact, though certainly online support is far better than none.

Society needs to step up and recognize male caregivers

What needs to be done to give men the visibility and support they deserve? Society must catch up with reality. Since men have always been providing care to some degree, and will continue to do so in increasing numbers, the fact that a large percentage of family caregivers are men should become recognized as the norm.

Strong men are making this happen by overcoming a perceived threat to their manhood and allowing themselves to become visible in public and online. Dedicated women are also spreading the word.

Organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association are helping men feel welcome in support groups and, gradually, men are finding that it’s okay to share emotions in public.

Caregivers are caregivers. As society grows in recognizing the role of family caregiving as part of the underlying moral and economic fabric of our nation, perhaps all caregivers will receive more recognition, and hopefully more assistance. Women can support their caregiving brothers so that the word “caregiver” eventually becomes as free of assumptions about gender as other areas of our lives that we’ve worked so hard to make gender free.

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a longtime newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Carol is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.