Juan Erman Gonzalez was showing his clothing patterns to a customer when his cellphone buzzed. It was his mother telling him that his father had another fender bender. Gonzalez excused himself to his agitated client and zipped off to persuade dad to give up driving.
That was three years ago.
Today, Gonzalez ‘s dad, 85, resides in an assisted-living facility. The younger Gonzalez and his brother, Guillermo, deliver him special meals, spends a few hours by his side and mows the lawn of the home Dad refuses to sell. Just when he thinks the care arrangements are working smoothly, something will change and require his attention.
Gonzalez says he’s lucky; as a freelance clothing pattern designer, he’s usually able to fit work around his caregiving schedule. “Sometimes I am able to work a complete week, sometimes not.”
Gonzalez is among an increasing number of men caring for aging parents — especially fathers — and experiencing the work/life conflicts this new dynamic brings. While men are less likely to help Dad in the shower or to get dressed, they are stepping in to hire and fire doctors, drive Pop to the grocery store and manage finances. “They are doing things they never expected to do for their dads,” says Gary Barg, CEO and editor in chief of Caregiver Media Group.
Because more male caregivers work full time, many report that overseeing Dad’s care has required they modify their work schedules, leave early, take time off or turn down overtime. According to a study published in 2009 by the National Alliance for Caregiving in collaboration with the AARP, one out of three caregivers — about 14.5 million — are men. “I think it’s clear that the demands on men as well as women are going to increase in terms of family care,” Barg said.
John Schoendorf, a Miami forensic accountant and only child whose mother died at 40, has been transitioning into the caregiver role for the past two years, and has become closer with his dad. “My father has comfortably brought me into the loop of his financial and medical world.”
Still, Shoendorf has had to change his late-night working habits and rearrange his work hours to go with his 86-year-old father, Harold, on doctors’ appointments. “I have had to remember family is more important than work. That’s harder to do sometimes than others.”
While male caregivers like Schoendorf deal with the same issues as their female counterparts, they also face distinctive challenges. They are more likely to use paid assistance for their loved ones’ personal care. They tend to travel farther or spend more time organizing care from a distance, and they are more hesitant to let a boss or co-worker know about their role as a caregiver, according to the AARP. In fact, men feel challenged by the perception that their need for time off or flexibility to care for Dad will be seen as a lack of commitment to their job.
“We try to get male caregivers to understand they have taken on a new job role,” Barg says. “They have become CEO of Caring for my Loved One Inc. and that takes a time commitment.”
Sons often find their new role is an emotional and logistical roller coaster. Carlos Ramirez, a Miami healthcare consultant, has been caring for his 80-year-old father since his sister recently died from breast cancer. His father, who suffers from diabetes, now relies on Ramirez to make medical decisions that recently included the amputation of a toe. “On a typical week, I’ll make him appointments, go with him on appointments and follow up with doctors.”
Ramirez often needs to exercise the flexibility his career as a consultant provides. “Some specialists only see patients certain days of the week or do procedures certain days.” He finds himself in an ongoing tussle over how much of his father’s care he can personally take on.
Experts say getting ahead of an aging father’s needs makes the balancing act easier — but often doesn’t happen. Men are more likely to ignore the mental or physical decline and believe a father who says he’s fine — until it reaches a crisis, says Amy Seigel, director of Advocare Care Management in South Florida. “When a father says he’s fine, a son goes back to his childhood and he is still that guy’s son.”
Seigel, who runs a geriatric care management company, often gets the call from a concerned son miles away from Dad when a situation spirals out of control. “They are panicked because they are at work and having trouble managing the medical and emotion needs of a parent who lives in another city or state.”
Recently, she heard from a New York surgeon who called in between operations. He had called to check on his dad in a hospital in South Florida but was disconnected several times. “I can’t keep leaving my job and getting on a plane because Dad fell in Florida,” he exasperatedly told Seigel.
Such struggles are what led Seigel to launch her South Florida business. “We become the eyes and ears for these adult children who need help with overseeing the medical, physical and mental health needs of a parent.”
Whether from a distance or nearby, Seigel says managing the care of an aging parent is an emotional period for adult children when roles change. “It’s a chance to mend any differences and build a bond. It can be a nice, rewarding experience.”
Gonzalez and his father have had a strained relationship for many years. But now, as he spends time with Dad and shares caretaking with his brother, he sees himself as a role model for his children, 26 and 19. “It’s important for me to show my children there’s respect for the elderly. Even though I have worked out a system of professional care, it doesn’t mean I drop my father off and abandon him. I’m showing my kids that you be there for family.”
Even with busy work schedules, caregivers can be there for a parent by calling at the same time every day, says Steven Huberman, dean of the Touro College Graduate School of Social Work. Huberman also advises reluctant male caregivers to use personal days, ask for flexibility and inquire about elder care benefits, particular if they become aware of their father’s deteriorating condition. “It may seem like a burden, but I recommend they savor the moment.”