No matter how much we may fight against it, men and women are different. Of course, these differences should not affect our understanding of equality (in terms of opportunities), and there are always exceptions to the rule. Maybe you’re like me: at times, I’m grateful for the distinctions.
I’m not going to get into a political or philosophical argument about gender roles here, but I do want to share a glimpse of the fascinating conversation I recently had with Bob Bua, President of Genworth Financial’s Caregiving Division, CareScout, and Liz Boardman, a care advocate for the company (her job is to offer voice-to-voice advice for families seeking senior care).
Our interview was focused on male caregivers, an emerging demographic in a world that is becoming increasingly caregiver-centric (as 42 million Americans currently serve as caregivers).
Boardman and her Genworth colleagues are taking a closer look at this new cohort: “In our care advocate work groups, we’ve been discussing how male caregivers are underserved these days.”
She says that sons, spouses, and nephews are the highest frequency callers to the caregiving hotline. Though caregiving stresses are similar for men and women, the bulk of information available for caregivers is directed towards the so-called fairer sex. The verbiage is female-oriented, as the information creators seem to naturally assume the women is the primary caregiver.
We discussed how differently men and women, say, a brother and sister, would tour an assisted living community. (Read my post on why I think care providers should consider a more gender-neutral approach in their communities and programming.)
Boardman and Bua called out other challenges specific to male caregivers, such as finding male-specific support groups where they may feel more comfortable attending and opening up. Both felt that this discomfort may be reflective of men being uncomfortable in the role as caregiver in general (which is perhaps connected to the way resources seem to “leave out” male caregivers).
“On the male caregiver side, there is more uneasiness and lack of confidence, maybe because they haven’t had the opportunity to speak with others like women tend to do,” Boardman said. “There isn’t much of a foundation; they need more encouragement, empowerment and validation. But they are definitely open to suggestion.”
While men seem more than willing to take on a task, what Boardman and Bua often hear is, depending on the situation, the men never pictured themselves in a caregiving role (i.e. older men assumed their wives would take care of them, or that they would have been the one to pass away first). “It just wasn’t discussed in the family,” said Boardman. “Maybe it’s a son with no siblings who would never have expected to be the sole caregiver; it just sort of drops into their lap.” There was no long-range discussion, nor was there the same expectation for them to step in as with females, she said.
Sometimes it’s a case of making up for lost time; a male caregiver steps up because he wants to give back in some way. In some cases, a male family member is nominated for certain direct care tasks for a male care recipient (shaving or grooming, for example, or more intimate personal care tasks, like bathing). I wondered aloud if this approach was better, but we came to the conclusion that it boils down to an individual, not gender-specific, approach. “Everyone has different preferences regardless of gender,” said Bua.
The AARP® Caregiving Help and Advice from Genworth hotline provides a good outlet, a safe place for many men. “They can ask questions openly,” said Boardman. She and Bua have also found that male caregivers and male care recipients could share personal insights more openly, and what they’ve learned has opened the Genworth caregiving team up to a broader way of thinking about how men provide care.
Boardman shared that many of her calls from male caregivers seem to follow a more linear view of things. “Men will call and say, ‘X,Y and Z occurred; I’ve never done this before, but the hospital is telling me to do X, Y and Z. What do I do? This is what I’m seeing, this is what I think I should do but I’m not sure, I’d like to discuss it.’ ”
“Sometimes, the conversation opens up to other issues or more dialogue — once a feeling of trust and understanding has been established — but men don’t always want to tell their story all at once,” she explained. Men also feel there should be a purpose to their call, a reason to pick up the phone and reach out for advice. “They feel there is a pressure to know what to do and how, and once they’re put at ease, we can start the process of presenting resources,” said Boardman.
Ultimately, Boardman, Bua and the entire Genworth caregiving team are developing ideas about how to better serve male caregivers. “We need to make a more concerted effort and be more conscious of male caregivers’ positions. We need to prompt them and encourage them to utilize resources more confidently. We need to take the pressure off, tell them it’s OK to ask for help and validate their role.”
We also pondered questions like:
- Do male caregivers burn out more quickly?
- Are they less emotional?
- Do they have higher levels of stamina?
(I see some future post topics developing here. Your feedback is welcome; just leave your thoughts in the comments box below.)
Special thanks to Bob and Liz for taking time to speak with me so I could share these insights with our readers. Keep up the great work on behalf of male caregivers!