When his wife, Chris, was diagnosed with breast cancer on their 19th wedding anniversary, Dave Balch suddenly found himself with two full-time jobs: running his home-based software business and taking care of her. “I don’t know how I managed everything,” says the 60-year-old from Twin Peaks, Calif., whose wife continues to fight recurrences of the disease six years later. “But you do what you have to do.”
Each year, more Americans are finding themselves in a similar situation—and challenging preconceived ideas about men and caregiving.
“People think that male caregiving means that the guy calls home from the job and asks his wife how his mom is doing,” says Donna Wagner, professor of gerontology at Towson University in Towson, Md. “That’s not true at all.”
A 1997 survey conducted by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving, a research and advocacy coalition, found that 27 percent of caregivers were men. By the 2004 update, that figure was almost 40 percent, with more male caregivers (60 percent) working full time than women caregivers (41 percent). Among the reasons for the increase: smaller families, longer life spans, more women working outside the home and greater geographic separation of family members.
While male caretakers face many of the same challenges as their female counterparts—including depression, stress, exhaustion and reduced personal time—they approach their caretaking role differently, say some experts.
“Men approach caregiving as a form of work, a series of tasks that needs to be accomplished,” says Edward H. Thompson, coeditor of Men as Caregivers and director of gerontology studies at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. “I don’t mean that to sound harsh. It’s just the way they look at things.”
Because they are used to delegating, they are more comfortable seeking outside help when they need it, says Richard Russell, associate professor of social work at the State University of New York’s College at Brockport.
Donald Vaughan, a 51-year-old freelance writer in Raleigh, N.C., has an aide come in three times a week to bathe and shave his father. “It’s worth every penny I pay,” he says.
But despite feeling isolated, men tend not to seek help for themselves, at least not from traditional support groups. Instead, some forge their own connections. In Rochester, N.Y., some fellow caregivers meet once a week for breakfast. “The men talk about sports, politics and grandchildren,” Russell says. “They don’t mention caregiving. It’s as if they have made a pact that this is their time to be just regular guys.”
Men also try not to bring their caregiving situation into the workplace. They not only have been socialized to keep things close to the vest, they also perceive a stigma associated with taking time off for caregiving responsibilities—and sometimes a lack of understanding from employers.