‘More Men Take the Lead Role in Caring for Elderly Parents’

November 29, 2008

Yesterday the New York Times published this story with the headline: “More Men Take the Lead Role in Caring for Elderly Parents.”  Though nowhere near 50/50, the workload seems to have shifted significantly away from female siblings and onto their brothers.  Of course, this only makes sense.  Women, especially those with children, continue to suffer under the expectation of being the center of the family unit.  Between working, running the household, maintaining the ties between distant and not-so-distant relations and the hundreds of other tasks that somehow elide the male gaze and attention in our society, it really is no wonder that some of the responsibility of taking care of an elderly parent will go to the men in the family.   

It reminds me of a blog post I read a few months ago.  Jane Gross writes The New Old Age blog.  One article, published in September, was titled “Dividing the Caregiving Duties, It’s Daughters vs. Sons.”  Ms. Gross actually received some heat from this one because she suggests the daughters should not “throw a feminist hissy fit” and focus on the importance of the work (taking care of elderly parents) instead of the thwarted expectations they might have of their poorly contributing brothers.  This post is not the occasion to take up that debate; however, the recent NY Times story and Ms. Gross’ comments do make me think about the importance of family involvement and planning for that involvement in long term care.  

Every professional in LTC knows there is a lot of guilt flying around when it comes to familes.  The daughter or son taking the primary caretaker role feels extremely guilty for putting mom or dad ‘in a home;’ the more absent daughter or son feels guilty because they have not helped more; mom or dad feels guilty because they require so much care assistance that their daughter or son cannot provide it anymore.  The band plays on and on.  I’ve seen in my own facility how all this guilt can manifest in some pretty strange behavior – – from the innocuous (family members’ inherently contradictory complaints) to the dangerous (residents misrepresenting their condition to nurses).   

One way to manage this guilt is through committed and deep involvement between the facility (or home health agency) and the patient family members.  An active family council can be a kind of support group for the caregivers/family members.  It can also be an occassion to channel the energy created by all of that guilt into something more productive: honoring the time remaining with an elderly parent by enjoying and helping them to enjoy their lives.  Even if the support is not as formal as a council, long term care facilities should take an active role in structuring care networks between family members and residents.  If the “dutiful daughter” and the “sainted son” can work together to improve mom or dad’s care, they may respect one another that much more.  It goes to the heart of what we do in LTC: care for the eldelry, care for families.


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