Scenarios like this are increasingly familiar.
The challenge of caring for America's dependent elderly has been, and continues to be, primarily a challenge to their families. At least 80 percent of the support provided to infirm older adults is delivered by their relatives.
Traditional sex-role socialization has dictated that wives, daughters and other female family members would assume the responsibility of caring for infirm relatives: cleaning house, shopping, cooking, bathing and dressing their elder parent, parent-in-law or spouse.
Indeed, research studies repeatedly document that females are the critical link in the elder-and-care-giver chain. As social work researcher Elaine Brody so aptly terms, these women constitute the "sandwich generation," many trapped between the demands of their growing or grown children and their elderly parents.
Both the professional and lay public tend to dismiss the idea that men might provide primary elderly care. But our research suggests that this dismissal has been premature and unwarranted. We have documented extraordinary efforts by husbands and sons throughout the United states to assume elder-care responsibilities.
These men are the unsung heroes in the elder-care enterprise. This research, supported by the Andrus Foundation of the American Association of Retired Persons, was based on a national survey of 148 males engaged in providing help to family members and 152 leaders of support groups. Several males taking care of elderly persons in the Philadelphia area were also interviewed.
Our findings fly in the face of conventional ideas about men as care- givers. The data suggest that men, usually husbands, have found themselves making a "career" of caring for the elderly. Caring for an impaired spouse, usually one suffering from Alzheimer's disease, can extend over many years, and can consume major portions of these men's time and energy.
And this career is frequently coupled with the added responsibilities of traditional employment.
Men who provided care to an older family member face substantial barriers. These include their own declining health and that of their dependent relative, the stress associated with the responsibility of care, traditional perceptions of appropriate sex-role behavior, limited and uneven patterns of assistance
from other family members and restrictions imposed by family and work-place obligations.
Paradoxically, these same men appear to be hesitant to ask for help and make limited use of the formalized system of services in their communities.
Contrary to popular belief, the men in our survey performed a broad range of care-giving tasks, including those once presumed to be "women's work." And they expressed considerable competence and satisfaction in performing these tasks - especially those that required providing social and emotional care with the belief that it could give them considerable emotional gratification. And it apparently did.
Some of them took regular and active roles in the activities of local support groups where, although outnumbered by women, they were able to share their experiences and receive social support from others like themselves. Unfortunately, these community support groups rarely made special efforts to reach out specifically to men.
What should we conclude from these findings? Since more women than men are diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, the demands placed on men caring for elders with this affliction need to be more recognized by the professional community. Support groups should direct increased attention to specialized outreach to men.
If men are to be given greater room to express their desires to become care-givers in the future, our society must develop more flexible conceptions of gender roles. Women just may be reaching their capacity to assume the lion's share of family care-giving responsibility; that suggests that men will increasingly join the front lines of caring for their elders.
Many already have.