Men as carers for those with an ongoing illness. Some might say this is a non-masculine role for a bloke to find himself in. This may be due to care giving being seen as a nurturing role, and one which is normally fulfilled by females (1). But there is a substantial group of males who are informal/unpaid carers; approximately 10% of men in the UK (2). Yet, we don't know all that much about men's experiences of caring.
Investigating the topic...
Myself and two colleagues, Louise Adam and Bryony Fairhurst, decided to take a closer look at this issue. We reviewed a number of recent studies examining the experiences of men as informal/unpaid carers and, in particular, how men cope with being in this role. Across the 16 studies reviewed, we found four broad categories of coping:
- Finding meaning and purpose
- Creating new behaviours, roles, and identities
- Maintain status quo and utilise existing resources
- Promoting masculinities and taking charge.
'Finding meaning and purpose' involved carers who experienced an enhanced sense of meaning or purpose in life as a result of being a carer. For example, some men reported a sense of growing pride through experiences associated with care giving. Others said that being a carer provided a chance to 'repay' for care received at an earlier stage in life. Finding meaning and purpose seemed to help men in coping and coming to terms with their role.
'Creating new behaviours, roles, and identities' involved new and/or expanded carer identities, behaviors and roles. This involved changes in how a carer saw himself and what behaviors he engaged in, rather than finding meaning and purpose as with the above coping category. Some men described a change/expansion to their masculinity to accommodate new duties brought by carer responsibilities. This was described as "breaking the rules" in one study (3). At the heart of this category of coping is an ability or willingness to redefine what it means to be 'a real man'.
'Maintain status quo and utilize existing resources' refers to those who responded to caregiving by trying to hold on to and maintain pre-illness life for both himself and his care recipient. Maintaining the status quo was often reported to involve strategies such as trying to maintain previous interests and social, gender, or work roles.
'Promoting (traditional) masculinities and taking charge' refers to coping efforts focused on displaying traditional Western masculine attributes and reflected in responses such as refusing/delaying help-seeking, taking control of all carer duties, taking a practical approach to carer work and trying to minimise the emotional impact of caregiving. This category can be seen as the opposite of 'Creating new behaviours, roles and identities'.
What does all this mean?
One key message from this review is that men use a variety of strategies to cope with the demands of being a carer. Men do not have to be confined to traditional masculine gender roles. In fact, some men have shown an ability to re-define themselves and bring an expanded and more flexible identity to their lives. This hopefully provides some hope and motivation for other males to break the traditional masculine mold.
More widely, this area of research shows that masculinity itself can have many different faces. Being able to strategically re-interpret attributes such as strength and resilience can open new doors in terms of identity and coping with challenges in life. For example, being 'strong' can mean seeking medical and psychological assistance when required in order to maintain optimal health.
Also, men (and women) need to think about using a wide range of coping strategies AND to use these flexibly across situations in order to cope with the various challenges that life throws at you If you keep hammering the same old strategy, you are unlikely to maximise your own coping effectiveness. The importance of coping flexibility has also been talked about in other research (4).
Finding meaning and purpose in the carer role also seems to help men cope. Thinking of the role beyond the routine day-to-day tasks (e.g., housework) may even help to draw out some positives of caregiving, even in the context of difficult and stressful circumstances. While this may be easier said than done, spending some time reflecting on this might help in providing an alternative lens through which to view carer duties.
If you would like to read about our review in more detail, it is to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychology of Men & Masculinity, published by the American Psychological Association.
(1) Campbell, L. D., & Carroll, M. P. (2007). The incomplete revolution: Theorizing gender when studying men who provide care to aging parents. Men and Masculinities, 9, 491–508. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1097184X05284222
(2) Office for National Statistics. (2011). 2011 Census: Unpaid care snapshot. Retrieved on 12.05.16 from http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/census/2011/carers-week/index.html
(3) Eriksson, H., & Sandberg, J. (2008). Transitions in men’s caring identities: Experiences from home-based care to nursing home placement. International Journal of Older People Nursing, 3, 131–137. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-3743.2007.00092.x
(4) Cheng, C., Lau, H. P., & Chan, M. P. (2014). Coping flexibility and psychological adjustment to stressful life changes: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 140(6), 1582-1607.