John Wayne? Not a Caregiver

John Wayne? Not a Cargiver

John Wayne? Not a Cargiver“If I had seen the schedule, I wouldn’t have come.” That’s how the most recent Nancy’s House retreat started. This one was for men, and one of them was not happy.

Nancy’s House respite retreats are a balance of activities and down time, a chance for caregivers to de-stress, learn some self-care techniques, and build a community of support. It has always been harder to fill the men’s groups than the women’s.

This guest looked at the schedule, saw “yoga”, and said, “I’m not doing that!” Then he saw “meditation” and said, “I don’t need that.” It was only by accident that the schedule had not been attached to his email. Given the chance, he would have said he didn’t need any of the things on the list and would have continued, frustrated and alone, as full-time caregiver for his wife who has COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

To cut to the end of that story, there was a great deal that our guest gained from the retreat, although he probably will never practice yoga. But it’s the things that happen that you can’t identify ahead of time – a chance conversation or a useful perspective – that add real value to the experience. He even said, given the opportunity, he would come again. So I was left with the question, “Why would he not have come in the first place?” The answer is, “John Wayne.”

There is a great deal written about the differences between men and women in caregiving. ( for example – “Man the Fixer, Woman the Nurturer” by Diana Derhom, PhD in Psychology Today, 4/23/12; “More Men Take On Caregiver Role” by Karina Bland in USA Today, 6/23/13; Negative and Positive Caregiver Experiences: A closer look at the intersection of gender and relationships; Bowling Green State University 2011.)

The gender differences invite an important conversation about how men and women approach caregiving differently and feel differently about it.

Women tend to do more of the hands-on care; men tend to do more administrative caregiving and handle finances, house maintenance. Women feel more stress but talk about it. Men identify the problem and then set about how to fix it; they don’t want to talk about it. The differences in approaches to caregiving carry over to differences in seeking help, support, and respite.

At risk of sounding like a stereotype, men, in general, take on caregiving like they take on most things. It’s the John Wayne model – “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” (Although this quote is attributed to him, John Wayne never says these exact words in any script. It is possible it comes from chapter 18 of The Grapes of Wrath.) But the reality is that not everything can be “fixed”, and that can lead to feelings of frustration or even failure.

Additionally, all caregivers, regardless of gender, are subject to the same physical and emotional risks. Just by being a caregiver of someone who is chronically ill, an individual is at higher risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. If there is sleep deprivation or sleep disturbance involved, the physical detriment increases, along with increases in poor judgment, poor decision making, and mood disturbance. Depending on whose study you read, 20% to 70% of caregivers suffer major depression. In men, depression is often manifested as anger.

But men in our culture are taught to keep going. So here is our male caregiver – exhausted, frustrated, trying hard to do everything that needs doing. If he is anything like the gentleman at the beginning of this article, all of this comes together as anger that is so pervasive not only does he not even see it, he does not know what others are talking about when they point it out.

Men need to learn that it is ok to ask for help; it is ok to take time out for yourself; it is ok to feel sad about the relationship you have lost. Most importantly, we need to start spreading the message that men need to take a break. They need the time and space to sleep, to regain their balance. They need to know that no one expects them to be the strong silent type.

For all of us who know male caregivers, it is our responsibility to start changing the message. Men need to take care of themselves in order to be strong and healthy as they care for their loved ones. They need to know that friends and family are willing to step in to give them that needed break.

They still may not want to practice yoga, but it is time for men to know that real men use respite. They need to know that even John Wayne had a good posse behind him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Elissa Lewin

Elissa Lewin is a Licensed Psychologist and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has maintained a private practice outside of Philadelphia for 25 years. Her own experience as a caregiver led to her founding Nancy’s House, a comprehensive respite program for family caregivers. www.nancy's-house.org

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