We all have roles, identities that we grow into as we move through life.
But some can be too rigid, and become a trap, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that makes it difficult for a person to live more fully.
This can be particularly evident when it comes to gender typecasting, the kind of stereotyping that would have us believe that men are all lantern-jawed stalwarts who never talk about their feelings and would never, ever cook a meal or do the family shop.
In this cloying scenario, women lack physical strength, cannot change a flat tyre, and exist only to be thin, shop and teeter about on impossibly high heels for which they are willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money.
These assumptions can be both irritating and amusing. But at times, stereotypes can be dangerously limiting — as in the case of Ireland’s unsung heroes, our many male carers.
The 2011 Census revealed that there has been a massive 20% rise in the number of male carers since 2006.
Here, in West Cork, where I live, 41%, or about two out of five carers, are male.
And there’s growing evidence that some male carers are paying a high price, with increased incidence of poor physical health, financial difficulty, social isolation and mental health issues documented.
Researchers have found that many men with such problems do not seek support, because this may be perceived as a public acknowledgment of their vulnerability and ultimately, an admission of failure.
These problems are further compounded by the fact that caring has traditionally been seen as something that women do.
There was a time — not so long ago either — when the sight of a man proudly pushing a pram down the high street would have been enough to stop traffic, or warrant some sidelong glances and even a few sniggers. Today, no one would look twice.
Stay-at-home fathers are an accepted part of modern life. The more this has become the reality, the less self-conscious any man need feel about wanting to be a hands-on parent. But it seems that such acceptance is still not commonplace for the thousands of men in Ireland who do sterling work caring for loved ones. Hence the difficulty for men who are carers to access the available supports.
The West Cork Carers Support Group reports that male carers who have attended support groups say they were often the only male in attendance, and although invariably made very welcome, they still felt uncomfortable, and chose not to go back.
There are many reasons why men who are doing this invaluable work should be celebrated and accepted.
In an ageing population, for instance, there are many older men who are in need of care, and who feel infinitely more comfortable with a male helper. There are things that they can say to a male carer, that they wouldn’t be able to say to a female.
Those men who care for loved ones, or who work in institutions, bring their own unique abilities and sensitivities to this challenging work, and hopefully their vital contribution will eventually become a matter of course.
I recently spoke to Bantry based carer Freddie Sherriff, who looks after his father.
* Who else is in the family Freddie?
>>There’s myself and my wife. We have two kids who are grown up now. My father has Alzheimer’s, but he is still their granddad who they have always loved. My father’s happiest when he’s at home. You can tell that when he comes back from respite. He likes the routine and having his family around him.
*Has he always lived with you?
>>No, he was over on a visit when he was taken ill, and we all decided that he should stay. We’re from Hackney [London], we’ve been stallholders, market traders for generations, but when the supermarkets wiped us out, my wife and I moved over here. We really love West Cork. We have a lovely home help and a very good baby alarm. My wife works as a home help, so between us, I think we do a pretty good job. My father’s not steady on his feet any more, so we’ve replaced all the slate floors with something softer, and we keep the front door locked, just in case. It’s a question of making adjustments as needed.
* As a male carer, do you sometimes feel isolated?
>>You can feel a bit out of place sometimes, when you go to a support meeting, say, and you are the only man there. Caring is still not seen as man’s work, is it? I contacted the West Cork Carer’s Group when they advertised a sailing event for men, and it was good to meet other lads in the same position, although we didn’t talk much about caring. That’s not the way that lads roll. There were nine of us and the yacht was big, about 40ft. We had a fantastic day out.
* Do you ever find it difficult to cope, wish you’d made different decisions regarding your father’s care?
>>No, not at all, He’s my Dad. He was and still is a great character with a fantastic sense of humour, a man who was in the Navy and who had a full life, looking after his kids, bringing us up, providing for us during some difficult times. Now we look after him. If we didn’t, all those sacrifices, the treats, the days out at the zoo, what would they mean? I’m just about to take the rubbish to the dump and Dad enjoys coming along too, having a bit of a root around.
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