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Caring is a man's job too

Women aren't the only ones tending to seriously ill family members at home. In some cases, caregivers' own health shows the strain.

November 27, 2006|Jonathan Peterson | Times Staff Writer

West Chester, Pa. — JOE WOLF still remembers his wife, Joanne, as a healthy 18-year-old with long brown hair and a '61 Chevy. They met through a social group at a Presbyterian church. They got married and had two children.

These days, he trims and curls Joanne's hair, because she no longer is able to do it herself. He brushes her teeth. He helps her dress. He cooks, cleans and drives her in a specially equipped van to the gym, where she battles the debilitating effects of two strokes.

"If I was the ill person, I'm sure she would be doing this for me," said Wolf, 65, who retired five years ago from his job as a printing company executive to care for his wife. "She wouldn't just put me in a nursing home and pack me away."

Joanne, 61, whose left side has recovered more than her right, is listening. "I'd be lost without him," she said, as autumn leaves swirled outside their ranch-style home in suburban Pennsylvania. "He's my right-hand man."

Dutiful daughters and nurturing wives have long dominated the ranks of society's caregivers. That, at least, is the stereotype.

Such a view is out of date, healthcare experts say. Both genders, it turns out, are playing a crucial role -- and at significant personal cost -- in providing hands-on care to ailing relatives. Their efforts have emerged as a foundation of the larger U.S. healthcare system, helping family members survive at home and perhaps prolonging their lives.

Among the almost 16 million family helpers who also hold full-time jobs outside the home, for example, men now outnumber women 52% to 48%, according to a study this year by the MetLife Mature Market Institute and the National Alliance for Caregiving.

The big factor behind men's involvement may be the reality that women increasingly have job commitments of their own, experts said. In such cases, men may feel compelled to step in and provide more of the aid. It is also possible that some men view such domestic labors more sympathetically than their fathers or grandfathers did in an earlier era.

"The public perception is that women do all the care-giving. It's totally not true," said Peter S. Arno of the Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

Overall, about 30 million family helpers are giving care 20 hours a week, with men providing more than 40%, Arno said, including help with eating, dressing, bathing and using the bathroom. "The fact is that men are doing plenty."

Male and female family members both may pay a price for their devotion. Risks escalate for illness and depression. Efforts to balance demands of care and career can be stressful and sometimes futile.

Anecdotally, however, some wonder whether men pay their own peculiar price, particularly those who labor in isolation and bottle up frustrations.

Betty J. Kramer, co-editor of the book "Men as Caregivers" and a professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, recalled her experience guiding male helpers: "In one support group, two men had strokes and one had a heart attack."

In another case, a man was having anxiety attacks, she recalled. On further investigation, it turned out the attacks were prompted by going to the grocery store: "He'd never shopped before," she said.

FOR the baby boom generation, care decisions are becoming an increasingly important part of life. Already, boomers are the major providers of the family help, most commonly assisting an aging parent who is battling Alzheimer's, stroke, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis or other conditions.

Scholars are debating whether greater longevity will add to society's care needs in future years, or whether advances in health will let more people enjoy old age with fewer disabilities. But for millions of people, the responsibility of care has already arrived.

"I just know this is what I'm supposed to do," said Mark Donham, 44, who cares for his wife, Chris, a 50-year-old Alzheimer's patient. "Work is work, but upholding the commitment we made at marriage is absolutely the right thing."

Donham quit his sales job this year. In the new routine, he helps Chris dress -- picking out clothes without buttons to make it easier for her -- drives her around and does most of the housekeeping. Each morning begins with a three-mile hike to Starbucks. "I'm in the role of husband, and then there's the role of caregiver. They start to blend together," he said.

At first, the Portland, Ore., resident tried to hang on to his job. But little problems at home made it hard to stay focused. Such as the time Chris called him at work because one of their cats had run out the door. "She was worried about the cat, and I'm worried about her worried about the cat. It would take my concentration off whatever I was doing," he recalled.

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