The number of male caregivers in America continues to grow. A 2017 AARP report, “Breaking Stereotypes: Spotlight on Male Family Caregivers,” describes that 40% of caregivers are male. Male and female caregivers face many similar challenges. Often, their caregiving role happens unexpectedly, such as when a partner or parent is injured or falls ill. Their personal, physical, and mental health tend to suffer as they prioritize the needs of their loved ones over their own. They manage the household, medical, and personal care tasks. Frequently, family and friends ask about the patient but far fewer inquire about the caregiver.
Despite these similarities, there exist particularities about men adjusting to caregiving roles. For example, men tend to struggle more with personal care responsibilities, such as helping their loved ones bathe, go to the toilet, or share childcare tasks. Men are also less likely to seek out support and tell others when they become overwhelmed.
How to Care for Yourself and your Loved One
Dr. Mary Milroy is a retired general surgeon who specialized in breast cancer care for over 20 years. She worked closely with patients with breast cancer and their caregivers. During her practice, she noticed unique challenges facing male caregivers. “This is a generalization, but men are typically less comfortable talking about personal feelings and often have less extensive social networks. There is pressure to be tough and manly. Many view their distress as a sign of weakness and think, ‘I should be able to do this.’”
As a provider, Dr. Milroy would bring this point up to them and say, “This is a lot to handle. A lot of people find this really tough.” She continued, “Women are more likely to have a friend that they can spill their soul to, but for men, that’s not as common. They are not as likely to talk about feelings during the Vikings game. It puts men in a slightly different situation.” Some men may feel unprepared to be in a caregiving role. “For many people, caregiving is unfamiliar territory. They ask, ‘Am I doing this right? This is the first time I’ve done it.’”
In reflecting on her years of experience, she offers the following advice for male caregivers:
Just be with your loved one.
“One of the most important things that you can do for your loved one is just being there for them. There will be days that they are sad or mad or whatever, and you don’t even need to say anything. Just be with them.”
She stressed that the patient is not usually asking for advice on how to solve his or her problem. “I sometimes think what happens to people is that the patient says, ‘I had a really bad pain in my foot,’ and the caregiver replies, ‘Oh well, you know what you should do…’ or ‘You got to do this..’ You don’t need to solve the problem. Instead, you can say, ‘Gosh, that sounds really hard,’ ‘It makes me feel sad to hear that you’re in pain,’ or ‘I’m sorry you’re having a terrible time.’ Often, your loved one just wants to feel heard and supported.”
Do things for them without being asked.
Your loved one is going to have days when they feel tired or don’t feel well. It can be a huge relief for you to pick up the load without them needing to ask you. “If, normally, they take the kids to school, say to the patient, ‘Why don’t you just rest or take it easy? I’ll bring them today.’”
Dr. Milroy mentioned that this advice is true for anyone, friends or family, not just the primary caregiver. “One of the worst things someone can say is ‘Call me if you need anything,’ or ‘Let me know what I can do.’ Because you know what? They [the patient or caregiver] will never call and ask you. People don’t like to feel like they are an inconvenience.” Instead, it is more helpful to do things without being asked. “Just drop off a meal. Send a card saying, ‘Thinking of you.’ Ask if you can pick up the kids from dance. Drop off hand lotion and a fuzzy pair of socks. Something to say, ‘Hey, I care.’”
Take notes at doctor’s appointments.
“As a caregiver, it’s certainly good to do some reading and be knowledgeable about the diagnosis. It is extremely helpful to accompany the patient to their doctor’s visits. Discuss their upcoming visit in advance and” write out the patient’s and your questions and concerns in advance. Bring a notepad. “Otherwise, you get home, and think ‘Oh darn, I was going to ask that!’” At the visit, write down answers to the questions and include important parts of the discussion. “The patient is often overwhelmed, so it can be helpful to write information down for them,” says Dr. Milroy.“That way, they can revisit what was said during the visit at a later time.”
Watch out for caregiver burnout.
Make sure to take care of yourself. “Caregiver burnout is a real concern. You can’t be there 24/7. You can’t be a good caregiver if you don’t take care of yourself. If you get sick, you won’t be of any help. I’ve seen caregivers who don’t eat, don’t sleep, and they look worse than the patient!”
Make sure to address your own basic needs and set aside to be you. “Take time to get away, to go spend an afternoon with friends, to take a long walk,” Dr. Milroy recommends. “Think about the things you enjoyed doing before the diagnosis – and keep doing that. And remember, if you’re having a hard time, there is nothing wrong with talking to a counselor.”
Everyday responsibilities don’t stop after someone becomes a patient or a caregiver. Therefore, it becomes crucial to prioritize tasks and delegate duties whenever possible. “If there is a lot of housekeeping causing you stress, then it is time to hire help. Or, if you can’t, inquire at your cancer center. Your nurse or social worker may have an answer.” Many cancer centers have ‘Cancer Navigators,’ health care workers who assist patients and caregivers throughout the cancer treatment process. “They may be able to arrange that for you.”
Dr. Milroy stresses the importance of being kind to yourself. “Kids, housekeeping, work — it’s too much. If the house isn’t in perfect order, just let it be. You have to pick priorities. Do you want to stay and clean or go for a walk with the kids or take your spouse out to dinner? You can’t do everything. You must prioritize your mental and physical health.”
Ask for support.
Sometimes it can be hard to reach out and ask for help from others. “People don’t want to be a problem, so they try to do it all themselves,” she says. If patients or caregivers are active in various activities or groups, the caregiver should reach out to them and make requests. “The caregiver can reach out, say, to their book club or church group and ask, ‘Could you bring dinner over on Monday nights?’” If it’s someone close, these requests can be more intimate, such as “It would really help if you could come over and vacuum and do the dishes,” or “Could you watch the kids so I can take my spouse out for a drive?”
Designate a caller or set up a blog to send out health updates.
Patients and caregivers can become overwhelmed with the volume of phone calls from friends and family asking for updates about how they are doing. “Often, these calls are well-intentioned, but it can be helpful to designate a trusted friend or family member to relay information out to the 10, 20, 30 people looking for updates. That way, you don’t get 32 phone calls to have to say the same thing over and over. That’s exhausting.”
Another useful resource is CaringBridge (https://www.caringbridge.org/). CaringBridge is a free online journal for people to share health updates. “When people want to check in on how the patient is doing, they can read the blog and send messages on CaringBridge.”
Seek out resources from reputable sources.
A cancer diagnosis affects all aspects of someone’s life, family, work, sexuality, etc. “Increasingly, I think that most cancer centers have a social worker and offer resources, books, and pamphlets in the office for patients and caregivers to reference. Books such as Mom Has Cancer can be helpful when needing to talk to children.” Dr. Milroy recommended organizations such as the American Cancer Society, Susan G. Kommen, and Mayo Clinic. “I have used all of those quite a lot. They stay up to date and have excellent information for patients and their caregivers.”
Cut yourself some slack.
It is important to cut yourself some slack, stresses Dr. Milroy. “I would often say to caregivers, ‘Are you doing okay? This is probably one of the most traumatic things you’ve ever experienced. Many people need help to get over this bump. You’re being given a huge burden. If you seek out a support group or need some medication to help you sleep or start an antidepressant to help get you through this, it’s okay. You’re not crazy or weak. Talk to someone — your pastor, your priest, a counselor, a social worker. If there is something you need to get through this, it’s really okay.”
Dr. Mary Milroy is a board-certified general surgeon and began focusing on breast cancer treatment and management in 1993. She served as the cancer liaison physician for the Commission on Cancer for Avera Sacred Heart Hospital in Yankton, South Dakota for over 20 years. She served twice as the president of the South Dakota American College of Surgeons and served as the President of the South Dakota State Medical Association.