Male, spousal caregivers are discovering personal ways to find meaning and purpose in their caregiving and, in the process, challenging the masculine stereotypes often attributed to this cohort of caregivers.
Today in North America, millions of informal caregivers provide care or help a family member or a friend with a long-term health condition, a physical or mental disability, or aging-related needs. In the US, 1 in 5 Americans are informal caregivers and 39% are men. In Canada, approximately 1 in 4 Canadians are informal caregivers and 46% are male.
Many have the capability to be caring, loving, and supportive caregivers, no matter their gender, but often male caregivers face obstacles based on traditional/stereotyped masculine attributes. These values have been widely discussed and clinically researched. Here are some common themes:
- Male stoicism: The reluctance of men to disclose or voice feelings especially of stress or depression. “Don’t show your emotions, don’t talk about your feelings, don’t complain”
- Self-reliance: Men may favor a more independent approach to caregiving. “I can fix it I”, “I can do it myself,” or “I don’t need any help”
- Task-oriented mindset: Men often prioritize the tasks of caregiving over their own physical and emotional wellbeing to support the needs of the spouse needing care.
4 Men Who Have Redefined the Stereotypes
Meet four men who share their intimate perspectives. Men who have left their mark through their unique caregiving experience. These spousal caregivers have found purpose and meaning and challenged the traditional, masculine norms. These are their stories:
Peter Rosenberger is an author, advocate, radio host, and caregiver for 30 years to his wife Gracie. In his books, Rosenberger alludes to stoicism and self-reliance through describing three dangers that caregivers face—the three I’s—loss of identity, loss of independence, and isolation. He illustrates these dangers as he recounts a meeting with a husband caring for his wife, a man highly invested in his caregiver role as provider and protector: “Looking across the table at the coffee shop, I saw familiar feelings cascade over my new friend’s face. A smart man, a capable man, a loving husband and father, and a weary and lonely caregiver—I knew his turmoil well and my heart broke for him.”
Rosenberger asked if he had the resources to bring in someone to help. He replied, “My wife’s not comfortable with it.” Rosenberger candidly responded, “I didn’t ask if she was comfortable with it. I said, ‘Do you have the resources to do this? You are one phone call away from prying your hands off the wheelchair and playing golf. Make the call! Here’s the number.” His friend called for help and returned to golfing. He later told Rosenberger, “I want you to know you saved my life.” Rosenberger adds “What my friend at the coffee shop came to understand is that he is loving his wife better by ensuring that he is in a healthy place. This keeps him engaged, supportive, and, to be blunt, helps him stay alive longer. Getting him back on the golf course helps him live.”
Frank Broyles was a prolific football coach. During his tenure at the University of Arkansas, Broyles coached the Razorbacks to many football championships. Later as their athletic director, Broyles was known for being very hands-on with the football program. When his wife Barbara was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Coach Broyles didn’t know much about the disease or the impact it would have on their lives. He decided Alzheimer’s was not going to destroy their love for life. He approached Alzheimer’s disease much like he would an opponent on the field– with a solid game plan and dedicated team.
In 2006, Coach Broyles wrote his book and organized it like a coach’s playbook. The book, aptly called Coach Broyles Playbook for Alzheimer’s Caregivers, includes chapter headings such as “Pre-Game Planning” and “Playing Offense and Playing Defense.”
In his passion to create this playbook, Broyles states: “My best advice to you is to treasure each day and live it to the fullest. Cherish the time you spend together and, perhaps most important, love each other. I hope you find peace in knowing that it is still possible to live and love when someone you love is living with Alzheimer’s disease. “
Coach Broyles died in 2017 leaving behind his legacy as coach and caregiver. The Alzheimer’s Playbook continues to be used today, and is praised worldwide for its caregiver message.
Social support is needed for men to succeed in their roles with comfortable forums where they can freely discuss their concerns. Groups can help to ease feelings of isolation. Men are now encouraging other caregivers to attend, even if it is something out of their comfort zone, to see what it’s like. Sometimes attending a group can feel overwhelming, but many find comfort and companionship once they’re there. Networking can provide invaluable resources for male caregivers, such as emotional support, ideas, and tips for self care.
Enter Kyle Woody. In 2012, Kyle’s wife Sarah (age 32) was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer, which eventually turned metastatic. Kyle has been her caregiver for eight years and they have two sons. Kyle, along with two other caregivers Justin Nicolay and Dustin Cesarek, experienced what it took to care for someone with cancer and saw the need to support other men. These men founded Jack’s Caregiver Coalition with a mission to improve the way that men think, feel, and act in their role as a cancer caregiver. The coalition created a space for them to come together to connect through activities like indoor skydiving, ax throwing, and more. Their group also offers male caregivers one on one peer support.
Regarding the meetings, Kyle says, “I hope it’s a chance for men to get their head around the role they’re in, learn to let go of what life used to look like before cancer, and know they don’t have to go it alone.”
In the LBGT community, there is much to learn from their unique and powerful method of caring and their level of commitment to providing care for their chosen family which may include ex-lovers, boyfriends, and partners. In a story featured in The National LGBT Cancer Project, Alex shares his perspective on giving care. Alex is a 60-year-old gay man living in Texas with his partner of nearly 30 years. His partner has cancer. Here is Alex’s story in his own words:
“What’s a caregiver? I really don’t think I’m a caregiver per se. This is my life; this is my relationship. I never thought it could be anything else. He’s my partner, he’s my husband… We’ve been together for almost 30 years — 30 years. How am I any different than any other spouse who cares for her husband, really, I’m no different. I get to show my love through caring for this person I adore…We have a lifetime together and cancer can’t change that or take it away. This is the way it has to be.”
Are you a male spousal caregiver (or know a male caregiver) who has overcome the stigma of stereotypical masculine norms? If so, we welcome your story in the comments below.