Saturday, March 29, 2008

Caring not only a female role - four out of every ten carers is a man

Photo by Sea Frost (Flickr)

This is the text of my That's Men column which appeared in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 25th March 2008. A collection of That's Men columns will be published by Veritas this summer.

What’s your image of a typical carer? It’s probably of a woman looking after a family member and in most cases you would be right.

But census figures show that about almost 40 per cent of carers are men. For these, as for their female counterparts, caring has certain negative consequences but some of these consequences may be different for men.

For instance, research in Northern Ireland has shown that 24 per cent of men looking after a dependant at home suffer “a severe lack of support” (the quote is from a booklet published by Derry City Council) compared to 15 per cent of women.

This suggest to me that women are more likely than men to keep in touch with a friend who has had to get heavily involved in caring. Perhaps it also means that men’s friendships are more likely than women’s to be linked to the workplace – if so, then a man who has to give up work to care for, say, his wife or a parent loses not only his income but also his social network.

Maybe we men need to follow the example of women and do more to stay in touch with friends who disappear into the world of caring.

The research from Northern Ireland shows that both male and female carers experience “a great deal of stress” to a greater extent than those who are not involved in caring – 17 per cent as against 9 per cent. Note that we’re not just talking about stress here, but “a great deal of stress” and we could expect general stress levels among carers to be higher than 17 per cent.

In Northern Ireland, 49 per cent of those caring for someone at home have a long-standing illness themselves, possibly an indication that these carers tend to be older.

Illness contributes to stress, of course, but I suspect there are many other sources of stress for carers, male and female. For instance, family members have a tendency to leave the carer to get on with it – it’s so much more convenient to say “Sure isn’t he great?” and to maintain a safe distance than to help out. The carer notices this and resents it but often lacks the assertiveness to insist that other family members play their part.

Then there are the endless battles with authority to get social services – a nursing or home help service, for instance. And there are the long hours in A&E waiting to be seen, waiting for an X-ray, waiting for a bed.

And the person being cared for may not help. If you were a contrary, awkward, impossible so-and-so all your life you’re probably not going to change when you need long term care. And some previously reasonable people can actually get contrary and demanding when confined to bed. Pity the poor carer who bears the brunt of it. (Memo to my kids: cut out this article and read this paragraph to me if I ever get like that. Better still, go live in Manhattan and keep out of the way).

Because women are seen as more capable and caring than men, I suspect that male carers are in a better position to get help from the social services. I also suspect that men are more reluctant than women to ask for such help, which cancels out the advantage they would otherwise have.

Caring can be based on love, duty or both. I expect that caring based on love can be very fulfilling, though tinged with sadness if the person being cared for is not going to recover. Caring based on duty is, it seems to me, a far more stressful proposition.

Love or duty, men or women, carers get only a fraction of the support and recognition that is owed to them by our society. I wonder if this is because caring is perceived to be something that is done by an army of invisible women who can be ignored?

And I wonder would this change if caring also began to be seen as a men’s issue? Perhaps it would – but whether it would or it wouldn’t, caring is, indeed, a men’s issue too and this will increasingly be the case as our life expectancy goes up.

Got an opinion? Comment here.

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