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Caring for aging parents in the 21st century is very different from any other time in American history. Today, parents and their grown children may live miles apart, both spouses are likely to be working, and the pressures and financial burdens of contemporary life can turn caring for aging relatives into a challenge. In the past, women were the obvious choice for looking after the needs of family members. But that is changing.
When Demitri Tretiakoff’s mother was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he volunteered to help. She was still able to take care of herself and live in her own home, but she needed support. Tretiakoff stepped into what he believed would be a part-time role.
“It got to be very difficult,” Tretiakoff said, “because every break, every lunch hour was spent on the phone looking for resources and what’s out there.”
Ultimately, Tretiakoff became his mother’s full-time caregiver, joining the growing ranks of men now caring for their elderly parents, most often, their mothers.
A 2004 survey by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving documents the trend. It found that men represent nearly 40 percent of caregivers. Divorce, longer life spans, women in full-time careers, and geographic separation of families are some of the reasons for the change.
Tretiakoff’s decision to take care of his mother stemmed from both financial constraints as well as his emotional connection with her. Like many who see their parents declining, he believed the in-home, personalized care he could provide would be better for her than living in a nursing facility.
John Leland, a New York Times reporter, has covered the growing trend in male caregivers. He describes the fulfillment that comes from attending to an aging parent. “This is the person who took care of you. This is the person who did the most intimate things for you, changed your diapers, or was there to clean up for you when you made all your messes, dug you out of scrapes, and now it’s a chance to do something for them. I think that’s where a lot of the reward comes from.”
Still, the new role is not one all men easily slip into. Not only are they learning new skills and taking on more responsibility, male caregivers are more likely to be working full-time than their female counterparts.
“I think it is a huge challenge to what we have decided are traditional male roles,” said Stephanie Coontz, a professor of family studies at Evergreen State College. “For 150 years we have said men don’t do that, men can’t do that, men feel incompetent at it, and some of them also feel emasculated by it.”
That’s not surprising, considering male caregivers find themselves in a predominantly female world, often feeling emotionally unprepared to take on the challenges, frustrations, and personal discomfort that can be triggered by the role reversal between parent and child.
“I never wanted to go to the point where I would have to see my mother naked. There was no way that I was going to help my mom toileting,” said Tretiakoff, the youngest of six siblings. “It was a difficult transition, but I’m doing it.”
There are many ways caregivers can find support. Classes offered by qualified organizations can help caretakers learn a variety of needed home care skills. In addition, support groups can promote understanding and acceptance of what is happening to both the caregiver and the receiver.
For Tretiakoff , the classes he took from the Family Caregiver Alliance were invaluable. “I took, I think, almost every class that they offered and if it wasn’t for those classes, there’s no way that I could do what I’m doing,” he said.
But first, the former architectural designer had to swallow his pride and admit he needed help.
“I would be ashamed that I’m getting help. But that’s what it’s there for,” he said. “I could do this on my own, but that’s silly.”
Kathleen Kelly of Family Caregiver Alliance understands the stigma attached to male caregivers and how significant it was for Tretiakoff to acknowledge he needed help and then to go find it.
”Men tend not to reach out and seek help as much as women do. I think for men it’s a little bit different because we don’t have the same expectations… In fact, we have different expectations and we expect them perhaps to not need the same kinds of emotional support as women do in their role,” she said. “But I think it’s really quite the opposite. Men really do need to be recognized and have the same kinds of emotional support and financial support and other informal means of support from family and friends.”
For both men and women, the demands of caretaking can be overwhelming. Stress, depression, and burnout are commonly experienced by those tending to the needs of the critically ill or disabled. The job can stretch to 24 hours a day and can be both mentally and physically taxing. In situations where a family member is suffering from memory loss, frustration can easily build up and spill over, straining the relationship.
For all caregivers, experts recommend respite time. “Respite is a very important option for families to consider. Everybody needs a break from their caregiving responsibilities and it’s really critical for families to consider respite as part of their own health routine, said Kelly. “It’s important to rejuvenate, refresh, and pause in your caregiving responsibilities.”
Tretiakoff couldn’t agree more. Even though he feels there’s never enough time to get everything done, he is committed to his “mental health days.” He has worked out arrangements with three caregivers so he can get away, if not for the day, then for a few hours. What he does isn’t as important as just taking a break.
“It’s walking away from the stress and just putting it aside. Putting it in a box and just being free like I was before,” he said. “It just gives you breathing room.”
While taking care of another can be challenging, there are positive benefits for both the caregiver and the care recipient. By focusing on the rewards that come from the experience – the development of strong bonds, closer relationships, and improved quality of life – caregiving can be seen as an extraordinary time of personal growth and connection.