07/07/2010 03:06 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Men: The New Caregivers?

I always ask my elderly patients whether they have children who are active in their care. It used to be that if they replied yes, it implied they had a daughter; sons were rarely involved. But now we're seeing that men are more often assuming the role of caregiver. In fact, data shows that nearly 35 percent of caregivers to the elderly are men.

This is a big increase over previous years, but many men are still hesitant to assume the role. What keeps men from caring for their loved ones? For one thing, this is a role traditionally dominated by women, so some men feel that their masculinity is threatened by taking on a role that requires intimacy and emotional support. They become worried about how their peers would perceive them if, say, they had to leave work early to care for elderly parents. And consider the inherent double standard -- a woman can take her mother to a doctor's appointment with nary a complaint from others, but when a man does it, he is instantly branded a "momma's boy." Also, some men feel unprepared for the responsibility of caring for another human being, and this unpreparedness deters them from embracing the caregiver role. Furthermore, the combined pressure of providing for the family, raising children, and being a caregiver can be very daunting for any gender. Unfortunately, the impending social isolation that accompanies full-time care of the elderly is intimidating. People like to joke that men are scared of commitment -- well, caring for the elderly is a big commitment that some men are afraid to make.

Despite these challenges, the baby boomer generation continues to age, so more men will be called upon to provide elderly care in the future. It is our responsibility as a society to remove many of the pressures we put on men to conform to certain gender roles. Also, data shows that men are quicker than women to enlist the help of others when it comes to caregiving, so men who also have to work and raise children can try delegating tasks to other family members. With regards to unpreparedness, there is a wealth of resources in print and online that can guide men on caring for the elderly. Numerous support groups exist specifically for men to share their experiences in caregiving and combat the social isolation that comes along with it.

They say it takes a real man to do a woman's job -- but labeling it a woman's job is part of the problem in the first place. I say it takes a real man to be a caregiver. Whether they like it or not, many men will be forced into the position of caregiver, and they must be able to rise to the occasion. Age-old perceptions of masculinity may linger, but now more than ever, men need to redefine what it means to be a family man.

National Alliance for Caregiving. Caregiving in the U.S. November 2009.