Caregiving from a male perspective

Sometimes the lack of female bylines in the Atlantic Monthly, or the tendency to publish sexist fear-mongering, annoy me. But I have to give it up to the Atlantic for last month’s compelling portrait of caregiving and its discontents by contributing editor Jonathan Rauch. Rauch writes about his incredibly painful and confusing experience of taking care of his father as he struggled with the indignities of deteriorating and dying. It’s totally honest and very moving. An excerpt:

My professional work all but stopped. Finding doctors for him and getting him to appointments and coordinating escalating medical needs swallowed entire days. I managed until one hot July afternoon. I was at my desk closing a column when Michael called from Costco, where he had taken my father shopping. My father had gone stiff on one side, become incoherent and unable to stand, and didn’t know where he was. I had to get over there, Michael said, in a quietly frightened voice. I jumped up and ran out, but by the time I arrived my father had recovered and did not remember anything untoward happening. “Do you need to see a doctor?” I asked, stupidly. He just gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “I’m okay,” he said. I stood there, in the produce aisle, with no idea what to do, frightened by my incompetence and, worse, furious at my father for putting me in this impossible position.
That was the day I realized that he could not cope and I could not cope and, emotionally, he could take me down with him. And I discovered in myself an awful determination not to let that happen.

Rauch goes on to draw a parallel between the silent suffering of so many people taking care of aging and dying parents and relatives, and the “problem with no name” that Betty Friedan talked about in The Feminine Mystique. No one wants to talk about how difficult it is to manage the affairs, much less the sadness, of a dying loved one, so folks walk around trying to keep a brave face on while being crushed–emotionally and logistically. Rauch writes:

Today’s invisible caregivers face their own version of a nameless problem. They are being asked to do alone and out of sight what in fact requires not just private sympathy and toleration but public acknowledgment and proactive assistance…I can say, from experience, that convincing caregivers they need help is not easy, at least not until they need it too much. Americans pride themselves on resilience and independence. We don’t want to burden others with our problems. We don’t like to acknowledge that a crisis is happening or imminent. Above all, we prefer to assume that our own and our parents’ declines will be smooth and uneventful. By keeping the problem out of sight and consigning it to the realm of the “personal,” the culture enables our natural tendencies toward denial, procrastination, and silence.

The personal is political, once again. While it would be nice to see Rauch couching this in the larger framework of the ways in which caregiving gets invisibilized and devalued in this society, it was refreshing to see a man being so candid and public about his own struggle with what has so often been seen as a female problem.
I truly believe that the crisis of caregiving in this country (lack of childcare, eldercare, maternity and paternity leave, vacation time etc.), won’t end until it becomes everyone’s problem. Rauch took a brave step in moving the issue in that direction.

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3 Comments

  1. Comrade Kevin
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    It was very sad seeing both of my grandparents on my father’s side progress through the stages of Alzheimer’s. My parents decided to move them in with us when they could no longer care for themselves, and I have to say I will always be glad for the opportunity to get to know them intimately.
    So often these days we live lives separate from each other from our relatives and are strangers to ourselves. We only seem to come together for weddings or funerals.
    I was responsible for cleaning their apartment (my father had an apartment for them built into the basement), since they both would forget or be unable to do so on their own. We cared for both of them until we could no longer do so. For a time we employed home health care workers, particularly when my Grandmother reached a point that she could no longer bathe or dress herself. Then that became impossible, and we had no choice but to take her to a nursing home.
    My Grandfather’s entire life had become caring for her after he retired, and it still brings tears to my eyes to think about how he was involved in a car accident on his way to see her. He lingered in the ICU for close to a week, then eventually succumbed to his injuries. By that point, my Grandmother’s illness had progressed to such a point that she no longer was able to remember him or to process the sad news. Perhaps it was for the best that way.

  2. uberhausfrau
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    in a way, i was blessed with grandparents that died “cleanly and quickly” if you would want to call heart disease/failure, melanoma, and colon cancer that.
    im currently watching my grandmother-in-law slowly become more senile and more controlled by her anxiety disorder and im watching my mother-in-law carry the brunt of the work and be the target of GMiL’s panic attacks, despite being one of 5 siblings (granted 2 live out of state, but the others are local).
    though my parents are still relatively young, i am an only child and live a 14hr car ride away. i have my own panic attacks about what would happen if they suddenly became ill, or needed my care.

  3. Posted May 6, 2010 at 2:15 am | Permalink

    I am so glad I found this. I am currently taking care of my Grandmother, who was given two months to live, THREE months ago. She is on Hospice care.
    I am also in the minority…most caregivers of relatives are a generation above me. I’ve been struck by how sexist the whole thing has been, as well. It’s insane. I am thrilled to see this other point of view. I’m going to have to blog about it, for sure.

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