Sunday, May 17, 2009

Do male caregivers have more problem with the "intimacy" and empathy required than women? Troubling trends

John Leland has a very troubling article in the Nov. 28, 2008 New York Times, “More men take the lead role in caring for elderly parents,” link here. Leland describes the history of Peter Nicholson, who gave up his job and took huge financial losses and incurred his own health problems after moving in with his mother in Los Angeles to take care of her after some strokes.

There is a commentary in the Salon "Broadsheet", Dec. 1, 2008, “Male caregivers need feminism, too,” link here.

This whole issue is very Janus-faced. There is a social stereotype (and perhaps real) that women are more naturally empathetic and nurturing, and men (like Spock) are most insistent on logic, and resistant to relating to people on the basis of emotional need than facts. There is the notion that men are more likely to insist on outsourcing and hiring Home Health. And men may be much more troubled by the “squeamishness factor” as in the articles.

On the other hand, many men, as well as women, who never had kids themselves have essentially been “mugged” or ambushed by eldercare problem, as in the New York Times story. As a general matter, the intimacy required may be much less "threatening" to someone who has already raised his own family and been able to make and keep his own marital commitment (below). Much of this is happening because, as we have discussed, demographics (the old “demographic winter” and “empty cradle” problems discussed by Phillip Longman and others). And the problem will only get worse as the economy puts more of a squeeze on Medicare and Medicaid, forcing more filial responsibility.

We’ve gotten used to the idea that emotional commitment (including unconditional openness to intimacy) is connected to the “voluntary” marriage vow (and that can now even apply to gay couples as well as traditional families). If you think about it, you can see how the eldercare problem can turn all this upsidedown.

Support groups and their documents generally say that caregivers are naturally entitled to preserve their own personal space in life and their own even assets. But it’s far from clear that society is committed to that proposition yet, or what will happen as the demographic storm intensifies. Are we going to think of family continuity and empathy as a pre-existing obligation for everyone?

Sacrifice is just that. The demographics of eldercare and the questions as to whether the long term care insurance industry really can keep up, all could ironically provide novel arguments for legal recognition of gay marriage and gay adoption. We could see another day when parenthood is almost mandatory.

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