En español | After another frustrating conversation with Ned, her strong-willed father, Rhonda was worried and angry — emotions she'd never express to him for fear he'd only harden his stance. She was worried because her father had taken complete charge of the caregiving for her mother, who has dementia, and was neglecting his own health in the process. She was angry because whenever she wanted to help her mother, Ned turned her away, arguing that this was his job and not the burden of his children and their families. To Rhonda, this wasn't fair or right. What about her need to care for both of her parents?
According to the “2020 Caregiving in the U.S.” report by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving, 39 percent of American family caregivers are now male, compared with 34 percent in 2009. It is a welcome development that men are stepping up more, not only to handle caregiving's logistics, like managing medications and dealing with insurance companies, but to do hands-on care, such as feeding, grooming and toileting. But, like women in the role, almost two-thirds of men experienced moderate to severe caregiver stress, a 2017 AARP study on male caregiving revealed.
The best support for stressed family caregivers in general is the support of others. There is a segment of male caregivers (like Ned), though, who are old-schoolers and flatly reject all help. They interpret their wedding vows of caring for a spouse “in sickness and in health” to mean that they and they alone will provide all necessary care. As admirable as their devotion and commitment are, they put themselves at risk of burning out and stymie other family members who want to step up on occasion, too.
How can adult daughters like Rhonda persuade their stubborn fathers to bend a little and join forces in a cooperative family caregiving effort? Here are some ideas.
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Don't fight for control
There's a reason these male spousal caregivers block others’ bids to become involved. Remaining in charge and focusing entirely on the care recipient's needs in dogged fashion are their way of warding off their own disquiet about what is happening to their loved one. (It also may be a means of assuaging unrealistic guilt that they weren't able to protect their spouse from illness.) If you directly pressure them to give up some caregiving control, then you are trying to force them to feel more of their intolerable emotions. They will fight you as hard or harder than they are fighting the disease — and justify it all the while that they are sparing you. That's why a more indirect approach is needed.
Don't offer help; ask for it
Many controlling male caregivers take pride in the assistance they provide, even when they are exhausted. Strange as it sounds, to get them to accept support from others often requires a plan that bolsters their pride as a helper, rather than challenges it by asking them to receive care. For example, to assist her father, Rhonda should ask Ned to help her and her family more. If she asks her father to come over with her mother to babysit her kids so that she and her husband can go out to dinner, then she is appealing to his need to help while creating a situation in which he will enjoy spending time with his grandsons. If Rhonda's husband asks Ned to come over to help him fix his old car, then Rhonda can be alone with her mother while the two men work on the carburetor and change the spark plugs.
Try showing up
Sometimes the barrier that prevents male caregivers from accepting help is that it feels humiliating to them to have to ask for it. An astute daughter or son, realizing this about their proud father, will show up to help without being asked. (Certainly, this will depend on whether the adult children live nearby.) For instance, Rhonda can bring over a plate of cookies on a Sunday afternoon, with the excuse that she made more than her kids and husband should eat. If Ned accepts the cookies without too much grumbling, then, two Sundays later, Rhonda should bring over a slab of lasagna, again using the excuse that she made too much. Ned will probably figure out that this is a transparent ploy on his daughter's part to help him and her mother more. But if he likes cookies and lasagna, then maybe he won't protest too much.
Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist, family therapist and healthcare consultant, is the co-author of Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships — and How to Overcome Them and AARP Meditations for Caregivers (Da Capo, 2016). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.