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.
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.