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Originally published Wednesday, February 22, 2012 at 7:13 PM

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Number of men caring for loved ones with Alzheimer's or dementia soars

The trend mirrors the higher number of women over the age of 65 in the U.S. with the disease.

Chicago Tribune

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CHICAGO — Doug Wyman got up early Tuesday to make breakfast for his wife, Barbara: coffee, oatmeal and fresh fruit. He drew a bath and helped her get dressed, then sat with her through her favorite morning TV shows.

Not because it was Valentine's Day. Because of love.

After 63 years of marriage, the couple developed their routine when Alzheimer's disease left Barbara unable to do things herself. But it's a routine that Doug Wyman — like a growing number of men who have assumed the role of caregiver in recent years — embraces proudly.

"She took care of me for 60-something years," said Wyman, 84, of Oak Park, Ill. "It's absolutely a pleasure to serve her now."

In the last 15 years, the number of men caring for loved ones with Alzheimer's or dementia has more than doubled, from 19 to 40 percent, according to the Alzheimer's Association. The trend mirrors the higher number of women over the age of 65 in the U.S. with the disease — 3.4 million compared to 1.8 million men. Those demographics have changed the tone of local support group meetings by adding a chorus of male perspectives.

It has also prompted an outpouring of new books, organizations and online resources for men learning how to be nurturers.

Experts attribute the increase in male caregivers to several societal changes, including evolving gender expectations as well as new life expectancy rates.

"Men say, 'this is hard. It's challenging, I didn't realize we would ever be at this point, but I'm not giving up,'" said Edrena Harrison, a social worker and specialist for the National Caregiving Center, part of the Family Caregiver Alliance in San Francisco.

The sentiment is shared by some husbands, who find themselves making spaghetti, separating laundry and coordinating doctor's appointments for the first time as senior citizens. For these men, assuming their new role was never a question.

Men sometimes can be better positioned than women to serve as caregivers, said Julie Bach, an assistant professor of social work at Dominican University in River Forest, who runs a monthly support group for caregivers.

Women often attempt to tackle care giving alone, feeling guilty about the burden they place on others. Men, however, are more inclined to seek out help in the difficult process, Bach said.

"It doesn't mean that men are not having emotional reactions, or they don't feel the loss," she said. "But their whole life is about moving forward and solving the problem. Women just want to vent, and guys just want to fix things."

Certainly there were male caregivers in earlier generations, but the number documented today is probably higher for several reasons, said Harrison of the Family Caregiver Alliance.

The size of the average family has become smaller, so leaving the caregiving to women is not always an option. There is also a greater geographic divide among family members today, sometimes putting children in other states far from aging parents.

And perhaps most notably, men are no longer hesitant to be known as something other than the breadwinner, Harrison said.

"Historically, men have always tried to help ... sometimes we've called them Family Men, or The Good Son or The Loving Spouse," Harrison said. "I think we're just seeing more men being willing to self-identify as caregivers now."

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