Meeting the Needs of Older Men: Challenges for Those in Helping Professions

Article excerpt

The uniqueness of men's lives has not been revealed in the social service literature. Therefore policy makers and practitioners are without the necessary knowledge base and research to create programs and services that will engage men and, in particular, aging men. This article presents an overview of the state of knowledge in general and the specific areas significant to policy and practice development.

Key words: aging men, men, health problems, unmet needs, community resources

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It has been suggested that professional education and literature may either not include content on men or, when discussed, portray them in a biased manner (Kosberg, 2002; Kosberg & Mangum, 2002). The result can be a distortion in the perception of this population that minimizes their problems. Future practitioners may, thus, be ill-prepared to provide sensitive and effective interventions to assist males, in general, and older men, in particular, facing both normative and unique challenges. This certainly involves men from minority group backgrounds, including immigrants and refugees.

This article emanates out of a belief in the need for an equitable and fair portrayal of older men, no less than for older women. Future professionals need to be adequately educated and trained to work effectively with older men, as well as older women. Finally, it needs to be acknowledged that a focus on the needs of older men helps not only them but the members of their families as well.

Stereotypes of Older Men

There are several explanations for lack of attention to older males (Kosberg & Mangum, 2002). First of all, older men exist in smaller numbers and proportions than do older women. As such, they represent a minority group among older persons. Whereas older women have taken advantage of the successful advocacy efforts of feminists, older men have not benefited from efforts of those in the men's movement and there are few, if any, groups or organizations that advocate on behalf of their welfare. There are (faulty) assumptions regarding the superior quality of older men's lives, compared to older women. Older men are seen to be powerful, affluent, and dominant in the home and in society. Some are; the majority of them are not. Humor in American society often takes a "poke" at older men. Jokes about the "dirty old man" or movie titles such as "Grumpy Older Men" can be seen to make mockery of them.

There seems to be a bi-modal view of older men as either frail, incompetent, dependent, sedentary, and asexual or privileged without significant problems. The first view results from both stereotypical humor and extrapolations from the fact that some older men are older and more impaired than their wives and that they have shorter life spans. The second view, equally wrong, results from incorrect conclusions from research findings and practice experiences regarding the relatively small proportion of older male clients, patients, and program participants involved in community based programs and services for older persons. Since they do not use resources, it is believed that they do not need them.

Thompson (1994) has pointed out that older men are a homogenized and marginalized (and a faceless) group. Gross generalizations about older men gloss over the fact that they are, as a group, more diverse than they are alike (Kosberg & Kaye, 1997). They vary by social class, education, racial and ethnic background, marital status, and existence of an informal support system. Older men live in different geographic areas of the country and there are differences between life in urban and rural areas. There are variations by country of origin and level of acculturation for older men who are immigrants or refuges. Although the majority of older men have led and lead normative life styles, there are those who are incarcerated, institutionalized, or lead deviant lives. Finally men, no different than women, vary in their personalities. …