By Jon Caswell
Years after her father's death, Karen, his daughter and primary caregiver, grimaced as she recalled their final years together. “He could be so mean," she said. “I don't think I'll ever be able to forget some of the things he snapped at me."
Family caregivers benefit from understanding that men and women often react differently to becoming frail. Not everyone ages gracefully or treats their caregivers graciously—especially family members. Anger may be how they express their depression and anxiety, as Karen found out.
There are at least a couple of reasons for this. “Men have a lot of pride about their independence," said Barry J. Jacobs, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist investigating caregiving for 25 years and author of "The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers." “They can be very resistant to help of any kind if they feel that accepting assistance causes them to lose self-control."
As a consequence, they have to be approached with offers of aid very gently to avoid getting their hackles up. Jacobs suggests that family caregivers reassure their fathers that they have the final say over whether or not to accept help. Another strategy is to give them choices about what form help could take: “Do you want to walk before or after you check the mail? Do you want to take your pills before you eat or after?" Through the power of choice, they can allow their father to maintain a sense of control.
Men and women get depressed at roughly the same rates (about 30 percent), but they demonstrate it in different ways. “The most common symptom of male depression isn't sadness, it's anger," Jacobs said. “Unfortunately, men who feel vulnerable and overwhelmed may be as apt to lash out at others as they would be to seek comfort from them."
That was exactly what happened with Karen's father: “As Mother drifted further and further into dementia, Daddy got more and more angry," she said. “There was nothing he could do for her, but he refused to get help."
Difficult as it is to look beyond the hurtful words, it's important for caregivers to sense their father's distress beneath his hostility and maintain empathy. If there is cognitive decline, there may be a cycle to his mood swings. Try not to interact with him at the down part of his day. Before you react with anger, walk out of the room. Come back when he is calmer.
We all want to be thanked for our efforts, especially when there is a sacrifice on our part. But that is not always forthcoming in a family caregiving situation, especially when depression and cognitive decline are involved. It will benefit you – and make you a better caregiver – to reach out for support, either from siblings or through Internet forums with reputable organizations like AARP or the Alzheimer's Association.
The cliché is that men relate to others through solving problems while women seek emotional connection. As emotionally unsatisfying as it may be, dealing with Dad effectively may mean giving him space and providing more concrete assistance or advice rather than just being emotionally supportive.