male caregiver with woman in wheelchair

When we think of a caregiver for someone with dementia, a picture of a woman normally comes to mind for most of us. After all, approximately two-thirds of caregivers are female, but what about the other third? What do we know about men who find themselves in this role?

It’s estimated that approximately one million men are caring for spouses with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of cognitive impairment. That number is growing as the population of people over the age of 65 is increasing at a staggering rate. 

The average age of a male caregiver is 49 and the average age of the person he is caring for is 79. Male caregivers are less likely to be the sole or primary caregiver, but are equally dedicated to their role, and the duration of their duties is the same as women’s — an average of four years. Men are less likely to provide personal care, such as bathing and dressing; data shows that over 40 percent of male caregivers use paid assistance for these tasks.

But what the statistics don’t tell us is how men experience the role of caregiving and how they may have unique needs for support. Men may be less likely to ask for help and may hold in more emotional stress about their caregiving challenges. The New York City Alzheimer’s Association Help Line reports that only 20 percent of its callers are men, even though we know well over 30 percent of dementia caregivers are male. This may illustrate underuse of other kinds of services intended to help people carry out this loving but demanding duty. 

Because little research has been done on the specific concerns of male caregivers, we have to theorize about the possible reasons. Perhaps men are especially concerned that if they ask for time off to care for their mother, it will be seen as a sign of weakness or a lack of commitment to the job. A “go-it-alone” philosophy might cause men to miss out on resources that can ease the caregiver burden, or wait too long to seek help. As a result, they might never find out about employer-offered services, such as caregiver support groups, flex time and paid or unpaid leave.

So how can we help? The message men need to hear is that asking for assistance isn't a sign of weakness, but rather a success strategy for improving the quality of care they provide. If you know a male caregiver, look beyond what he’s saying — which is usually “I’m fine,” — to detect unspoken signs of stress. Be patient and allow him to express his feelings, keeping in mind this might be embarrassing for him to share. And when he does open up, be prepared with concrete information, such as educational materials and details on workshops, support groups or self-care. Above all, listen, listen and listen some more.

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