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When Fathers Become Caregivers

In his book Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe writes, “Sherman made the terrible discovery that men make about their fathers sooner or later… that the man before him was not an aging father but a boy, a boy much like himself, a boy who grew up and had a child of his own and, as best he could, out of a sense of duty and, perhaps love, adopted a role called Being a Father so that his child would have something mythical and infinitely important: a Protector, who would keep a lid on all the chaotic and catastrophic possibilities of life.”

On Father’s Day, families come together to celebrate multiple generations of beloved fathers in our lives. Far too many families have been affected by the catastrophic reality of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and cognitive decline. While we celebrate, we need also to reflect on how these terrible diseases have affected our dads, husbands, or spouses, either as patients or as caregivers.

More and more men are caring for their wives and other loved ones battling dementia. While almost 75% of family caregivers are women, the number of caregivers who are men has doubled recently, a proportion that continues to grow. Women are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than men, meaning that fathers are increasingly needed to serve as caregivers for their aging spouses, a fact that is only exacerbated by the decision that many want to make to  age-at-home.

He adopted a role called Being a Father so that his child would have something mythical and infinitely important: a Protector.

For many men, adopting a role as caregiver can mean a pretty big transition from a life previously focused on profession and other activities outside the home. “Men often start from a very different place than women as they transition to caregiver roles,” says Beth Kallmyer, vice president of care and support at the Alzheimer’s Association in Chicago. Even with a desire to provide care, some men may need help learning how to cook healthy meals and others may need support with bathing and dressing loved ones. The new challenges they face may also underscore the need  to hire home health aides.

Living with cognitive decline is stressful, not only for the patient but for the caregiver as well. In fact, caregivers have a significantly increased risk of stress, fatigue, depression, and other health complications. The National Alliance for Caregiving and other organizations like HFC strive to educate the public about the needs of caregivers, and provide valuable resources and support groups for them.

Family caregiving is challenging and persistent. None of us ever dreamed of having that job. It’s hard work, emotionally and physically. When a father takes on the responsibility of managing the household and all the medical and emotional needs of their loved one’s daily care, he is often at risk of burnout. While our fathers strived to be our protectors as we grew up, for many of us, this Father’s Day, we need to do our part to protect them, too.