By Diana B. Denholm, Ph.D., LMHC
We’ve been told that men and women approach life in differing Mars and Venusian ways. Caregiving is not exempt from such dissimilarities. In fact, the challenges men and women face are quite different, as are their responses to them.
Married in their early 30s, Linda and Larry have enjoyed 25 years raising their children, and now spoiling grandchildren. Their lives are similar in many ways. Both work part time; Larry at his law practice, Linda in real estate. All expenses are split equally. They enjoy playing golf together and share many interests and friends.
Both take on additional duties. Larry’s in charge of hiring people for house, yard, and pool maintenance. He oversees legal matters, does all the investing, and is in charge of car care. Linda was a hands-on Mom, and the chauffeur and cheerleader for athletics. Now she’s in charge of all things medical for the family, plus cleaning, shopping, cooking, and entertaining. She’s also very involved with the grandchildren and their extracurricular activities.
They have distinct-but-equal roles, but what happens if one of them becomes terminally ill? While for both the life and marriage they knew has ended, let’s look at how the experience differs for each gender. Keep in mind that these are generalizations and don’t apply to either sex all of the time.
What men face.
The biggest challenge for Larry is that men are providers, protectors, and fixers. That’s men’s biological programming. So Larry approaches Linda’s illness as something to fix. That’s good because Larry may see caregiving as a separate task, rather than a way of life, so can mentally compartmentalize the challenge. That’s bad because he can’t fix it. This makes him feel like a failure and may lead to depression. Men are more visual than women, so he’s more easily turned off sexually by his sick wife. The effects on husband caregivers are so different from wives, that their divorce rates are much higher.
On the plus side, men are not seen as caregivers, so praise is more likely showered upon them.
Rather than share his concerns with friends or use support groups, Larry gets his emotional support indirectly, just doing “guy” things and being with his friends, without having to say a word about what’s going on.
Although he took on new duties and roles, those likely will stop when Linda dies. These were things he only needed to do or know about temporarily, including cooking, since the casserole brigade will probably line up at his door the moment Linda has passed on – offering a ready relationship under the guise of food.
What women face.
Biologically, women are the nurturers. That’s good because the caregiving role is more natural to Linda. That’s bad because she isn’t even considered a caregiver. It’s expected of her—she’s just doing what a wife is supposed to do. So Linda’s efforts go unnoticed and unappreciated. Even though she’s never been a nurse, she’s expected to know how to do caregiving, so less help is offered. Yet there will be plenty of people to tell Linda the “correct” way to perform her duties!
As a “good” wife Linda may immerse herself in Larry’s care. While she isn’t expected to fix his illness, she certainly should be able to manage everything about his care and ensure his happiness. She is at physical risk because she is smaller than Larry, and handling him is difficult. While Linda may normally share concerns with friends, she’s learned that people may get tired of listening.
Along with her previous roles and caregiving, now come household maintenance, finances, and legalities.
“What can couples do about this?”
This is the important question. Whether you’re the man or woman caregiver, your life and your marriage do not have to be over! There are simple tools you can learn to reclaim the life and relationships you thought were lost. In my book, The Caregiving Wife’s Handbook, I offer strategies, tools, and resources that have helped many couples navigate through a long-term serious illness. The Handbook is a wellspring of hope for the marriage – and the life of the caregiver. It’s about making life work while your loved one’s health is falling apart.
– Guest Author, Diana B. Denholm, Ph.D., LMHC, author of “The Caregiving Wife’s Handbook – Caring for your Seriously Ill Husband, Caring for Yourself” (Hunter House 2012).