Roles, Responsibilities, and Relationships among Older Husbands Caring for Wives with Progressive Dementia and Other Chronic Conditions

By Sanders, Sara; Power, James | Health and Social Work, February 2009 | Go to article overview

Roles, Responsibilities, and Relationships among Older Husbands Caring for Wives with Progressive Dementia and Other Chronic Conditions


Sanders, Sara, Power, James, Health and Social Work


The demand for familial caregivers is growing. Although the current profile of a family caregiver is still an educated, middle-aged female, typically a daughter (National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, 2004), demographic trends suggest that more men, specifically husbands and sons, will be assuming the role of primary caregiver for a chronically ill older adult over the next 20 years. At the current time, it is estimated that 37 percent of caregivers are men, with this percentage being higher among people who are not white, particularly Asians (54 percent), Latinos (41 percent), and African Americans (33 percent) (National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP 2004).

There has been a growing emphasis on the experiences of male caregivers, with a primary goal of educating professionals, including social workers, about how the male experience and perspective is both similar to and different from that of female caregivers (Fitting, Rabins, Lucas, & Eastham, 1986; Snyder & Keefe, 1985). One topic that has yet to be examined among male caregivers, specifically husbands, is the way in which they define the types of transformations that occur in their relationship with the care recipient as a result of the particular health condition, its progression, and their overall status as a caregiver. This information can help social workers by providing a context for the physical, emotional, and psychological challenges husbands encounter throughout their time as caregivers.

LITERATURE REVIEW

Attention to male caregivers of individuals with chronic health conditions, including dementia, has increased since the early 1990s. Research has found that the approaches that male caregivers take to the provision of care are affected by their life experiences, gender role socialization patterns, and expectations of their retirement years (Campbell & Martin-Matthews, 2003; Parsons, 1997). Russell (2001) described male caregivers as "capable caregivers, able to manage, as well as nurture, innovate, and adapt" (p. 354). Male caregivers are successful in caregiving roles through the use of outside assistance, self-education about the disease progression, and strong coping patterns (Harris, 1993; Kramer, 2000; Mathew, Mattocks, & Slatt, 1990), even though they may experience a sharp learning curve as they gain more knowledge about the intricacies of being a caregiver for a chronically ill older adult. Despite their effectiveness as caregivers, studies of husbands, as well as other male caregivers have demonstrated that men are not immune to the strains of caregiving, including depression, grief, stress and burden, and the need for assistance from formal and informal support networks (Almberg, Jansson, Grafstrom, & Winblad, 1998; Delgado & Tennstedt, 1997; Kramer, 1997; Sanders & Corely, 2003; Sanders, Morano, & Corely, 2002).

When compared with their female counterparts, however, men, research has determined, regardless of relationship status, fare better. Several researchers concluded that male caregivers experience less stress, burden, anxiety, and depression when compared with female caregivers, as well as less interpersonal conflict (Hibbard, Neufeld, & Harrison, 1996; Kramer & Kipnis, 1995; Thompson et al., 2004). Russell (2001) described the male caregiving style as "a model of caregiving that blends management with nurturing" (p. 360). In addition, both qualitative and quantitative research specific to husbands has determined that husbands possess a strong sense of duty to the care recipient, use a problem-solving process when meeting the daily needs of the care recipient, and are able to adapt to the changes in their caregiving role as the disease progresses (Harris, 1993; Kramer, 2000).

Researchers have also reported that husbands are highly committed to the care of their wives. The first observation of this commitment was seen in 1993 when, in a qualitative study of 16 husbands, Harris described a theme titled the "labor of love" (p. …

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