Thursday, November 30, 2006

Men increasingly becoming caregivers

By Jonathan Peterson

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 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. "He's my right-hand man."

The view that dutiful daughters and nurturing wives dominate the ranks of society's caregivers is out of date, health-care experts say. Both sexes, 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. health-care 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 outnumber women 52 percent to 48 percent, according to a study this year by the MetLife Mature Market Institute and the National Alliance for Caregiving.

"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 percent, Arno said, including help with eating, dressing, bathing and using the bathroom.

Male and female family members both can 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 if men at times pay their own peculiar price, particularly those who labor in isolation and bottle up their frustrations.

Betty J. Kramer, co-editor of Men as Caregivers and a professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, recalled her experience guiding the male helpers.

"In one support group, two men had strokes and one had a heart attack," she said. 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 family help, most commonly assisting a parent who is battling conditions including Alzheimer's, stroke, Parkinson's disease, and multiple sclerosis.