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October 30, 2002

Male caregivers largely anonymous, prof says

Though males make up at least 24 percent of the prime caregivers in the country, not much is known about the challenges they face in that role. And much of the reason for the lack of research can be attributed to men, says Sal Arrigo, a recreation and leisure studies professor at CSUS.

"Women write about women's issues and talk about feelings," he says. "Men go and hide."

Arrigo learned about caregiving firsthand, taking care of his father for three years through a fatal illness. He's part of the growing generation of adults taking care of their own kids as well as older relatives or friends. Arrigo also teaches a workshop for male caregivers, sprinkling his advice with sports and car analogies.

He says caregiving may be tougher on men than women. "Men overreact. They tend to make things bigger than they are," he says. "They want to jump on subjects and analyze them. And when they come out the other side, they suppress their feelings and don't want to talk. They don't want to say that they cry."

He hopes that as male caregivers realize they are not alone in their situation, more will open up and seek help. That's crucial because 88 percent of caregivers develop some sort of serious illness, he says, and depression is a real issue.

They are also susceptible to feelings of anger, frustration and guilt. "You do get emotional. The stress level is high," he says. "But you can't just yell. It's not a bad call by a referee.

"Caregivers need to have an outlet. I tell my students to write a letter and send it to someone. Get the feelings out." And if that doesn't work, he says, they should consider talking to a professional. "Sometimes you need to talk to people besides your friends, an independent person," he says.

As tough as it can be at times, caregiving also teaches resilience. "Caregivers find they can do things they didn't think they were capable of and see situations they never would expect to," he says. "They can't look past the circumstance - it has to be dealt with. If the person you're caring for wets himself, you can't just let them sit there."

That makes a sense of humor crucial. "When a guy has to bathe his mother, it's important that they both are able to laugh," Arrigo says.

Arrigo warns that the relationship between caregivers and their parents will change in other ways as well. In facing the eventuality of death, the relationship may become more loving but it can also be more businesslike. "All of a sudden you know their affairs," he says. "You can't have secrets. You can't be shy. You need to be aware of their wishes."

Societal roles change too, he adds. Men may have to take on chores they might not ordinarily do and tasks like cooking can become a big issue. "Men can't fix caregiving like they can a car. But they can be successful if they give it the same amount of loving attention," he says.

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