8. Gender

As a state volunteer for AARP, I have been identified as someone particularly interested in problems associated with care giving. Since so much of today’s care giving service revolves around some form and degree of dementia, my “specialty,” if you will, is concentrated on that subject.

That categorization does not make me comfortable.

I’m not comfortable with that role for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not an in-home care giver any longer.

As a careful financial planner, I’ve prepared for my wife’s needs. So, she is now in an exceptional memory care facility that features a homelike atmosphere in which there are only eight residents, each with their own room. The facility is fully staffed with competent individuals who maintain a family atmosphere and are supported by highly qualified medical personnel.

Second, I’m a man taking care of a wife, and that configuration is not the prevailing narrative. I read and attend conferences on care giving for Alzheimer’s patients, and the stories are typically about a woman taking care of a parent, grandparent, or husband. Even the narrative of a wife taking care of a husband is not especially common.

Over the past three years I have met many care givers. Some have become friends. Before the pandemic we often chatted. We got to know each other and something about our lives prior to and at the onset of dementia in our loved ones. Most of our stories were variations on a central theme. Occasionally we would have lunch together. 

Regarding Alzheimer’s and care giving in general, does gender matter? As with most distinctions in life, it depends on cultural habits, beliefs, and mores. It also depends on the norms of a particular era and how we view divisions of labor.

Today’s cultural norm is one reason I decided to write Alzheimer’s and the Husband. My intent is not to suggest that my emotional and attitudinal struggles are symbolic of the way all husbands feel. To do that I’d need to conduct research across a broad spectrum of men in the population who care for afflicted wives.

I would separate the subjects of my research into various classifications. They might include education, occupation, profession, financial standing, or age. And I’d include an examination of other involvements that have the potential for influencing behaviors and the ability to handle responsibility and stress.

But I’ll leave that endeavor to someone younger and more capable. In fact, there is a good chance someone is already studying the situation.

And I want to avoid hackneyed stereotypes as much as I can. That women are the nurturing sex and are therefore wired to be sensitive to the needs of others. That they tend to be more loving and interested in ministering to those in pain and emotional distress. That they are more willing to help loved ones who cannot even take care of the most basic things like showering and using the toilet. ADL is the abbreviation for activities of daily living, and I believe many, if not most men want to avoid worrying about things like that.

I know I do.

Some women are terrible care givers. Some men are good care givers. There are both men and women who provide excellent care for their spouses without giving evidence of being severely affected emotionally, physically, or spiritually. I know many of them personally. I italicized “giving evidence” because ill effects aren’t clearly seen. Sometimes a little digging below the surface reveals problems they cover up somehow.

Until they can’t.

Case in point. A friend called to tell me mutual friends of ours were in deep trouble. This couple is financially secure. Their friends have been watching the wife decline cognitively for years. Her husband refuses to accept help from friends. They have no children, nor do they have family members close to them. Just a small social group that includes people their age and have problems of their own.

The wife’s behavior is bizarre and rational conversation is not possible. The husband, once a man of average build, now weighs about 100 pounds. Skin and bones. Determined to continue taking care of his wife, as always.

I suggested that my friend call the help line of the local Alzheimer’s Association as soon as possible. If there is no intervention, the situation will reach a resolution involving emergency medical services and even the involvement of police.

Many years ago, the couple lived in our neighborhood. I didn’t know them well. As far as I knew, the husband was quiet, somewhat distant, loyal and a hard-working success in life, at least in terms of making money and taking care of his wife. The wife was a teacher with a good network of friends until they moved to a more affluent neighborhood in a city. By that time, she was losing her ability to speak and be rational. Too late.

It makes me wonder what would have happened if conditions were different, and the husband had become afflicted instead. If they did not move away from a previously supportive community.

So many “ifs.”

If the wife had made the decisions, became the care giver, and talked openly with her friends, I think the outcome would have been different than it is now. No way of knowing for sure.

Again, my observations have no basis in fact. I haven’t researched the topic. But it doesn’t take mounds of data to support the observations that women are often part of supportive sisterhood. The existence of a nearby family, or at least a community of mutually supportive friends, can make a big difference. And women are more inclined to take advantage of that available assistance.

My wife and I discussed contingencies. Again, we worked together to prepare for the future. Many of my male friends would rather pretend everything would be fine forever.  They will pay a price either as the care giver or the afflicted one.

My wife’s mother had Pick’s Disease, another form of dementia. While my father had cognitive problems late in life, they didn’t seem to be the result of genetics.

So, we got our finances in order. Lived close to good medical services. Maintained the already solid relationship with our extended family. Explored housing options. Maintained membership in a supportive church.

Maybe gender is less a consideration than planning together. It was for us.

Do you think gender makes a difference in caregiving? 

Continue to seek ways to take care of yourself.

©2020 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

2 thoughts on “8. Gender

  1. I can identify with a lot of the issues you’ve raised a husband caring for a wife at home and then in an assisted living facility. I am a father/widower caring for my oldest daughter in an assisted living facility with excellent staff. I completed agree with your point that thoughtful loving planning is important and we are blessed that the careful planning included my daughter, my family, her sons and ex-husband and the generous support from her friends. Nevertheless there are still many cases where I want to change and assist in the care giving and I continue to get that support from all those sources. Jim Russell @jamesswriter

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  2. Thank you James. I appreciate your comment. My hope is we can reach more men who face challenges like ours. My youngest son and his wife have a 21 year old daughter with Down Syndrome. While she can do menial work, Megan can never live independently. In many ways, circumstances faced by you and our son, taking care of a child, is worse than mine. I admire you both.

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