THE BLOG
11/17/2014 02:07 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

Alzheimer's, Men and Caregiving

We'd been driving around -- lost -- for what seemed like an eternity. My husband wouldn't ask for directions.

"Why not?" I pleaded.

He replied, "I don't need help. We'll be fine."

"Typical man," I thought. I finally pulled out my cell phone; dialed our destination; got directions and within minutes, we were back on track.

I tell you this story not to embarrass my husband, but to make an important caregiving comparison. The journey for every Alzheimer's caregiver is hard. The road is filled with unexpected turns, bumps, detours and dead ends. It's easy to lose your way. Anger, confusion and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness are common.

But for male caregivers, who are generally less likely to seek assistance or who will put off asking for help as long as they can, the road can be even tougher.

While it's true that most caregivers in the U.S. are women, the national percentage of male Alzheimer's caregivers has doubled, from 19 percent to 40 percent between 1996 and 2011. And with the number of dementia cases expected to jump from 5 million today to almost 16 million by 2050 -- almost two thirds of whom will be women - their husbands, sons and grandsons will increasingly bear the caregiving burden.

As I know from my personal caregiving experiences with my mother and father, all of us -- men and women alike -- face physical and emotional fatigue, isolation from family and friends and often, financial hardship. However, male caregivers too often approach the role with a dangerous "go it alone" mentality.

The good news is, in our role as service providers and Alzheimer's professionals, we are hearing from more and more men who need our help. The bad news is, we know that this increase pales in comparison to the tens of thousands of husbands, sons and other men who are struggling without us. For instance, only 20 percent of the calls that come in to our 24 hour Helpline at the New York City Chapter are from men -- yet we know they make up a much larger percentage of our caregiving constituency.

Whether they are older men taking care of their wives, or sons taking care of their moms, the higher levels of anxiety, frustration and embarrassment they experience is striking -- particularly among men in their 70s and 80s.

By and large, men of the older generation were the breadwinners. Their wives -- even if they worked -- took care of the household chores like cooking, cleaning, laundry and shopping. Now, faced with the frightening reality that their life partners have dementia, these men are responsible not only for medical and care decisions, but for running the household as well, including chores they've probably never done before. And suddenly, these strong, independent, proud men are completely lost at sea.

To all the male caregivers: do yourself a favor and take the first step. Call the Alzheimer's Association Helpline anytime -- day or night (1-800-272-3900). No question is too small; no problem, too big.

Find a support group. They are comfortable, safe places where you will be with people who have been in your shoes. You won't be the only guy in the group who's ruined your wife's favorite blouse because you didn't separate the colors from the whites. You won't be the first to admit he's clueless about operating the dishwasher. Nor will you be alone in wondering, "How will I ever get through this?"

Thinking of this generation of caregivers, I'm reminded of the Beatles' song, "Help" ... When I was younger, so much younger than today, I never needed anybody's help in anyway. But now these days are gone, I'm not so self assured ...

With a little help from your friends at the Alzheimer's Association, I promise, you will "get your feet back on the ground." And someone will be with you, giving you directions, every step of this long journey.