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‘Tough’ Male Caregivers Highlighted in Media Spots

They champion the unpaid work of 16 million U.S. men caring for family members


What do the following actors — “The Rock” (Dwayne Johnson), “McDreamy” (Patrick Dempsey) and “The Fonz” (Henry Winkler) — have in common? While their onscreen roles show them as strong, accomplished and cool, their real-life roles have taken a departure from the traditional male stereotype: they have all been caregivers to aging and ill mothers.

And they are not alone.

Thanks to AARP and the Ad Council, another actor who has joined the ranks as a real-life caregiver stars in a recent public service awareness campaign. Antihero Danny Trejo, who starred in AMC’s Breaking Bad and movies such as Con Air, Machete and Spy Kids, cared for a friend with cancer. He shows in the TV/video spots that even tough guys can care for loved ones. “Caregiving is tougher than tough,” he says in the campaign’s tagline.

Numbers of Male Caregivers Growing

The campaign underscores the results of a 2015 study published by AARP showing that 16 million men in America are now caregiving for a loved one. That represents 40 percent of the 40 million family caregivers of adults in the U.S. The number of men as caregivers has been growing over the last several years, according to a 2015 study in the Journal of Gerontological Social Work, among other reports.

The increase in male caregivers reflects the changing demographics in our country, shrinking family sizes and an evolution of gender roles.

“What was a little surprising, but also obvious, from our study is that caregiving crosses gender lines,” said Jean Accius, vice president of AARP’s Public Policy Institute and author of a March 2017 report on the issue. “And these men are going beyond the role we have seen for men in the past, where they helped with managing finances, driving a parent to a doctor appointment or shoveling snowy driveways. Today they are performing tasks that help their loved one with activities of daily living — bathing, grooming, feeding.”

Accius believes this increase in male caregivers reflects the changing demographics in our country, shrinking family sizes and an evolution of gender roles. Just as more men have increasingly become primary caregivers for children as their wives assume the family breadwinner role, now they are also becoming primary family caregivers for an aging or ill loved one. And Accius reports that what they need is “recognition they exist” and training for their role.

Men Want Caregiving Information, Not Online Support

It is this need for help and guidance that led Homewatch Caregivers, an international home care agency operating in seven countries, to start the first online male caregiver support community in 2012. However, after four years they found men did not want to share their experiences and talk to other men online. Instead, they really needed help in managing their caregiving tasks and finding community resources.

“We recognized that men are more engaged in caring for an ill spouse or an aging parent than 30 or 50 years ago,” said Jennifer Tucker, vice president of marketing and business development for Homewatch Caregivers. “But what we found is that caregiving was not a discussion they wanted to have ‘over the virtual fence’ with other men.”

Tucker explains that these men instead wanted information specific to their loved one’s condition — whether it was Parkinson’s disease, cancer or multiple sclerosis.

Homewatch Caregivers now works closely with numerous disease specific organizations, such as the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Alzheimer’s Association, to be able to provide the emotional support men need, she said. Meanwhile, Homewatch Caregivers is now focused on online training and “how-to” videos.

Male Caregivers Are Unprepared for Certain Tasks

AARP has also created educational videos to help all caregivers, especially with tasks for which they are not trained.

“Over half of the men in the study were helping with what we would term ‘nursing care’ such as wound care — but they were not prepared to do so,” explained Accius. “This is a common thing we see with all caregivers, but the request for more training was higher for men.”

Shawn Perry, who is retired from the Air Force and a former businessman, now is host of the The Senior Zone radio program in Washington, D.C. Growing up fatherless in an African American community in New York City, he sees his caregiving role for his aging mother as just a natural transition as he gets older.

“As the oldest son, I feel caregiving is different in the African American community,” says Perry. “There really is no conversation, except with my wife, about the fact they we will both care for our older parents when the time comes. Maybe it’s my military training or the family focus in African American communities, but my role is to safeguard and protect and care for my mom — however, whenever.”

Perry, who lives a couple of hours away from his seventysomething mother, says he embraces the latest technology — including videochats and texting — to stay in contact with his mother. And he believes the training videos for caregivers, especially men, will be valuable.

Spreading the Word

Men for whom caregiving doesn’t come as naturally may be surprised at the public service announcment (PSA) spots. Created by advertising agency DDB New York through support from AARP and the Ad Council, the casting of Trejo grabs the viewer’s attention immediately. What is unexpected is that this self-proclaimed “badass” suddenly shows us a softer, caring and loving side.

And that is the point. Caregiving has long been seen as a role women take on — wives, adult daughters and sisters. But now tht two out of five caregivers are men, it was important to demonstrate that more men are playing this role. It was also critical to acknowledge that being a caregiver is similar to “being a warrior” in the battle for a society that is living longer.

“Although most male caregivers agree that caregiving is stressful, very few reach out for help; they often avoid talking about their situation with others and don’t feel comfortable discussing the emotional challenges of caregiving,” said Icaro Doria, chief creative officer of DDB New York. “This informed the central idea of the creative: Caregiving is a tough job, but AARP can help you be prepared.”

The PSA spots are being distributed to more than 33,000 media outlets nationwide, including TV, radio, print and online. Facebook also donated media support.

Other Male Caregivers React

The response has been immediate.

When Trejo shared the caregiving spot on his Facebook page, the video attracted over 500,000 views in 24 hours and hundreds of comments, many from male caregivers sharing their own stories.

One Facebook comment came from John F., who shared, “Cared for my father for nearly 30 years, and was privileged to be at his side when he passed. To be a son, father and grandfather are the greatest honors God could have bestowed on me. Thank you for recognizing those who honor their loved ones.”

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Sherri Snelling
By Sherri Snelling
Sherri Snelling, executive director at Keck Medicine of USC and author of A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care, is a nationally recognized expert on America’s 65 million family caregivers with special emphasis on how to help caregivers balance “self-care” while caring for a loved one. She was named #4 on the Top 10 Alzheimer’s Influencers list by Sharecare, the health and wellness web site founded by Dr. Oz.@sherrisnelling

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