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The Secret Caregivers

Men care for their loved ones more often than we know. Why do they hide it?

The Secret Caregivers

— Illustration by Mutt Ink

As CEO of the Motion Picture Television Fund Foundation (MPTF), Ken Scherer, 61, is charged with providing health care, counseling, and other services for more than 60,000 members of the entertainment industry. Yet when Scherer, a caregiving novice, faced a life-and-death crisis with his mother, he remained silent.

Six years ago she was 84 and in a rehab hospital in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, as he tells it: "I flew from California to see her. She refused to eat or talk to me. She rejected a feeding tube. She kept insisting, 'Let me go.' "

As his mother's sole caregiver, Scherer felt isolated and helpless. "I needed to tell someone 'I don't know what to do. I'm lost,' " he says. Scherer followed his mother's wishes and did not allow doctors to feed her through a tube. Events quickly took their course, but Scherer was haunted by regrets as he learned more about caregiving. He realized his mother might have been suffering from a treatable depression. "My mother chose to die," he says, "but she didn't have to."

Since his experience, Scherer has devoted himself to improving support and services for caregivers at MPTF. Members and the parents they may eventually provide care for can now consult with a geriatrician while the parents are healthy, long before they become so frail or depressed that they lose the will to live.

After Louis Colbert rescued his mother from the nursing home, his sisters once again took charge of her care. But six months later his exhausted sisters finally sent an SOS e-mail to the rest of their siblings: "We can't do this anymore. We have to put Mom in a nursing home."

It was the worst-case scenario—and it got the family's attention. Louis called a family meeting. The seven siblings discussed what skills they could offer and when. The beefiest brother became his mother's "elevator," as she called him, doing the heavy lifting from bed to chair or car. Others offered to take a night or weekend. Louis agreed to pick up Helen from the day program she now attends twice a week. The siblings decided that if they all gave up small indulgences such as potato chips, they could each contribute $20 a week to hire a family friend to cover in-between times (at a steeply discounted hourly rate). Mama Helen smiled broadly as she listened to her children's suggestions.

Eighteen months later Louis had shed his guilt and acquired new skills as an advocate for the elderly, which earned him respect from his family—and made him a better administrator at work. He now sees their shared caregiving role as a gift.

"One mother can raise seven children," Louis says, "but it takes seven of us to take care of Mom."

Men are often surprised by the depths of intimacy the caregiver's role awakens in them. In 2001 veteran actor Victor Garber had just moved to Los Angeles to begin the TV series "Alias" when his mother developed early signs of Alzheimer's disease. Hope Garber, then in her mid-70s, was in denial about her illness, yet could not be left alone in her West Los Angeles apartment. Victor—who is single and whose brother and sister live in Canada—arranged for home health aides through a public agency but found them "shockingly inadequate." He had to coerce his mother into moving into an assisted living facility.

"From that point on," he says, "my mother became my child."

Victor, now 61, saw his role as the care manager. He found a take-charge woman willing to spend days with his mother, keeping her engaged with shopping excursions and other activities. He was on the set 12 to 15 hours a day playing a heartlessly cruel CIA agent, but every morning Victor would wake up feeling guilty and empathetic, making plans to call his mother, meet her for lunch, or take her to a film. He built his schedule around his mother, curtailing his social life and travel. "It was my life for those years—about six years—a structured routine," he says.

Victor confesses that there were times he felt he couldn't go on—a feeling shared by most caregivers. "But I was blessed with support from my family and friends," he says, including his costar Jennifer Garner, whom he calls "an angel." Victor also praises the Alzheimer's Association: "They were there all the way. I'd call their help line [800-272-3900] when I didn't know what to do." Victor and his mother looked forward to the organization's annual fundraiser in Los Angeles, the Memory Walk. It drew them out of isolation and made them feel part of a community.

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