Power To Believe - Ask And Receive

By Kristine Cichowski, MS

Change is occurring at many levels throughout America. One change in particular pertains to gender roles in family caregiving. For decades the majority of family caregivers were women. A recent study by AARP revealed a new dynamic. Forty percent of today’s family caregivers are men. 1 As the aging population grows, this will become even more pervasive. Now one might think, what’s the big deal? Gender roles are shifting in various aspects of life. It’s common for both husbands and wives to be working while raising their families, to see men sharing responsibilities in childcare, and/or staying-at-home as the primary caretaker while their wives work fulltime. Historically, most men have not had many natural experiences in caring for an aging parent or loved one with a chronic illness. Becoming a family caregiver is often an entirely new role that comes with little knowledge or skill. In many traditional families, men tend to be private individuals, not talk about their feelings, and even shy away from relying on others for assistance. Being and showing independence is often used as a strong measure of self-sufficiency, image, and esteem. This type of thinking and behavior, however, can impede one’s ability to effectively care for themselves and others. The following helpful hints apply to all caregivers, but in particular to men.

The stereotypic response of “We don’t need to stop and ask for directions. I can figure it out,” doesn’t apply to being a family caregiver. The sooner you become comfortable in identifying the questions to ask, asking the questions, and seeking support, the sooner you’ll begin to find opportunities and resources that make life a lot easier for you and your loved one. Admitting that you may not know something, exposing your insecurities, or being unsure of your abilities in this new role is not a sign of weakness. Confront the fact that this is new territory and embrace the process of learning and letting others teach and help you along the way.

As much as I’d like to say, do this and you’ll get this result, the fact of the matter is that when you are caring for a human being, things don’t always follow a specific pattern or arrangement. The key is to be flexible in your thinking and approach. This requires a new level of patience and openness in order to shift to Plan B or “go with the flow.”

I can’t tell you how many times my husband and kids have all said, “Mom, just tell me what you want and how you want it done!” Guess what? Sometimes a person who needs care doesn’t even know what they want or how you can support them. Being a caregiver involves anticipating needs and being flexible when things don’t go as planned. Your response, be it positive or negative, can influence emotions, motivations, and outlook on situations in more ways than you know. Developing your capacity to tolerate unknowns and instances when things may not be going as quickly, or in the way you’d like, can ease tensions and enable creative problem solving. Patiently and actively listening can help you to “be there” for your loved one and be better able to shift gears when plans need to change.

Seeing someone you love struggle with their health can mess with your head. Emotions of every sort can surface when you are a family caregiver. I’ve noticed that men try to shut off their feelings as a way to cope. Doing so, can wear you out and, in the long run, can take a toll on you. This is why it’s important to connect with others who can provide support. Some people may have similar experiences while others may not. It is also important to reach out to trained professionals when you are over your head. 2 It’s helpful to connect with others in all of these realms. All of these people provide unique perspectives, insight, and encouragement that can make a difference in your livelihood.

Going out with a friend or group of buddies, for example, can free your mind of day-to-day concerns. This can be playing a game of bags or going out for a meal, movie, or other local establishment for male bonding time. 3 Women do this all the time because it helps them replenish their spirit. Being a family caregiver doesn’t mean you have to weather the storm alone. Partnering with others provides health benefits of all sorts and most importantly, can give you the stamina you need to care for your loved one and yourself.

Regardless of your gender, caregivers are typically tough on themselves. 4 When you’re working hard to support someone, it’s natural to want everything in order. Oftentimes, we become deeply involved in making sure that all options are explored, all T’s are crossed, and all stones are turned. When you’re faced with multiple demands on your life, it’s important to take a step back and know you’re doing your best. When you place high expectations on yourself, one of two things can happen. You can become self-righteous; “I did this and this and no one appreciates what I did.” Or, slip into negative self-talk; “I knew I should have done such and such. How did I miss that?” Seeking and expecting perfection can set you up for disappointment. Cut yourself some slack and give yourself permission to see the positive sides of your efforts. Learn from your mistakes and apply lessons learned. This will help you not to take things personally when situations don’t turn out as planned. It will also help you keep an open heart and mind.

When you enter the new turf of caregiving, it’s important to remember to regroup, restart, and reassess along the way. Draw from your knowledge, resources, skills, and faith to build your comfort and confidence in yourself. As a man you already have a unique perspective that can strengthen you and your support team. Your power to succeed involves seeking and accepting support in order to stay refreshed and effective. Doing so will help you discover new strategies, tackle obstacles, and create a positive caregiving journey. Believe in yourself and persevere.

1 National Alliance for Caregiving, AARP Public Policy Institute, Caregiving in the United States -2015, Caregiving Profile – The Male Caregiver. http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/2015/AARP1001_Male_CGProfileAug26.pdf

2 Agingcare.com, The Importance of Counseling for Caregiver Burnout. https://www.agingcare.com/articles/counseling-for-caregiver-burnout-126208.htm

3 AARP, The Hidden Male Caregiver. http://www.aarp.org/home-family/caregiving/info-2017/the-hidden-male-caregiver.html

4 Wojciechowski, Elizabeth, PhD, RN, Caregiver Stress Management, Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. https://www.sralab.org/lifecenter/resources/caregiver-stress-management