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The Mental Health Impacts of Being a Male Family Caregiver

The Mental Health Impacts of Being a Male Family Caregiver

Updated June 2020

“Male caregivers – most commonly sons, sons-in-law and husbands – make up almost 40% of caregivers, but nobody knows,” notes Mónika López Anuarbe, an economics professor at Connecticut College in New London, and author of the study, Understanding Male Caregivers’ Emotional, Financial, and Physical Burden in the United States. “It’s a silent minority that’s growing, up from 34% 10 years ago. And for Millennials, the likelihood is a 50 – 50 split.”

According to Anuarbe’s research, the most burdened unpaid caregivers are sons and sons-in-law. “These carers don’t want to seem inadequate and also don’t want to express those feelings,” she explains. “It’s a big deal emotionally.”

The toll is higher when these men care for female family members. “The activities that cause the greatest emotional burden have to do with personal care. Fixing the roof for your mom isn’t as emotionally taxing as bathing her. That’s trickier.”

Caregiver Stress: Stereotypes About Male Givers

The situation is exacerbated by societal constructs.

“Because caregiving has traditionally been something females do, there may be intended or unintended consequences for men doing this role, almost similar to the stereotype of being a male nurse,” admits family caregiver Robert Grier, who looks after his father, U.S. Air Force service-disabled veteran. “Why talk about caregiving when society views you as less of a man as if something is wrong with you for helping family?”

As a result, many male caregivers don’t seek help with caring for their parents or themselves, according to Ryan McKelley, a licensed psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and past-president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Men & Masculinities, a division of the American Psychological Association.

“Some—not all—men learn from an early age that asking for help for mental health concerns violates social norms around masculinity,” he confirms. “They may work hard to get through tough times on their own and reject opportunities for informal assistance since the culture of masculinity in the U.S. gives subtle and not-so-subtle proscriptions against it.”

It can be hard to override years of messages that support groups and mental health concerns aren’t for men. And that’s a serious concern.

“The number-one downside of not getting support is the health of the caregiver,” Anuarbe says. Her research shows that by the time many men get help with delivering care or addressing their own health, “they’re so burdened it’s almost too late because the burden manifests in other ways like having a heart attack, filing for bankruptcy or experiencing depression.”

Or worse.

Male Health: Men and Suicide

“Men in the U.S. complete suicide approximately 4 to 6 times as often as women,” McKelley reports. “I can think of no other public health outcome as tragic as this one. The ultimate downside is that some men suffer in silence and miss all of the opportunities along the way to get help before taking their lives. We also run the risk of missing some of the signs and expressions of suffering if they don’t fit our stereotype of someone struggling.”

If you’re thinking about suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) is available 24/7 with free and confidential support.

Strategies for Managing Male Caregiver Stress

How can you improve and protect your mental health when caring for a family member?

1. Improve your ability to provide good care.

“The first, and perhaps most difficult step, is to recognize that you are suffering, in pain or feeling off of your game – and that there is nothing more human than accepting that experience,” McKelley counsels. Reframing how you think about mental health and emotional health support can ease our reticence to reaching out. The professionals who provide these services are there to provide their expertise for you. “Provided they have the resources and awareness of them, men can get confidential support from the traditional medical community, mental health providers, religious leaders if connected to a faith community, online support groups, hotlines, and very likely a trusted friend, partner or family member. I sometimes ask men to think about the pride or joy they get from helping others solve problems, and to give that back by letting others support them with their problems.”

2. Take a team approach.

Caregiving often takes more than one caregiver. “There is an irony that many men are socialized to work in teams through participation in sports or work, but don’t take the same approach to getting support,” McKelley notes. Taking good care of ourselves and our elders requires a team just as much as other challenging tasks do. Even if there are no family members around to contribute, you can form a team that includes the nurse at your elder’s doctor’s office or healthcare facility, the pharmacist, members of your faith community, a trusted Uber/Lyft/taxi driver, the local grocery store manager and area senior services. "There is no family willing and capable of helping, however I cannot let this stop me from being a better caregiver to Dad," notes Grier, who's a fellow at The Elizabeth Dole Foundation. “For example, prior to COVID-19, the VA had an Adult Day Program staffed by aides and nurses to care for loved ones during the day. This type of support allowed me to run errands, work and workout.”

3. Find an ally.

With multiple resources available, it can sometimes be complicated to figure out how to work with a network of helpers. Try to find the person who will be your best ally on the team; maybe it’s a social worker, a community member or a nurse. There’s usually one person who will step up to help be your advocate with other services. Be open—it may not be who you expect. But the person who will help you find your way through can be an invaluable part of getting the care and assistance you need.

4. Get an assist from tech.

Apps, mobile-services and assistive devices can ease caregiver stress. Grier turned to tech to ease the pressure and worry around his father’s prescriptions. “Getting medications incorrect could land him in the emergency room, so this is very stressful,” he says. “This is where Philips has come to the rescue. The Philips medication dispenser is a simple way to handle complex medication regimens, automatically dispensing medication at pre-programmed times. And if the medication isn’t taken, the dispenser will notify a caregiver.”

5. Value your own health.

As the World Health Organization says, “There is no health without mental health.” McKelley explains: “We are highly complex beings with integrated biology, psychology, and social factors that interact with each other to support or impair our health. Many people do not realize that depression is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease similar to traditional lifestyle factors like smoking, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. Chronic anxiety can weaken the immune system and leave people with fewer defenses against illnesses, cancer, etc. We should no longer see physical and mental health as separate concerns.”

6. Acknowledge the positives.

Being a caregiver is hard. Learning from our mistakes and owning our challenges is part of life, of course. But too much emphasis on these aspects can lead to caregiver stress syndrome. Grier avoids caregiver stress by celebrating even the smallest wins. “Every meal is an accomplishment, getting him to doctors’ appointments are accomplishments, putting on peppermint oil to get rid of a muscle cramp is an accomplishment,” he says. Grier also homes in on gratitude. “Some people have grown up without a father, I am grateful to have had my father raise me and be there for me through the good and the bad. Caring for him is a small way for me to give back to him.”

When the emotional toll of caring starts to feel overwhelming, remember that there are lots of resources available; you don’t have to carry things all by yourself.

“Know you are not alone and others are going through similar experiences,” Grier says. “When I start to feel stressed, I remind myself of the importance of caregiving and that there are other caregivers who are doing way more tasks in far more challenging situations."

Don’t disregard professional medical advice, or delay seeking it, because of what you read here. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional consultation, diagnosis or treatment; it is provided “as is” without any representations or warranties, express or implied. Always consult a healthcare provider if you have specific questions about any medical matter, and seek professional attention immediately if you think you or someone in your care may be suffering from a healthcare condition.

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