A Place for Dad: Does Gender Matter in Senior Care?
Men are a rare breed among the elderly and also at senior communities, but what does this mean? Are there senior living issues affect men specifically? Do we approach care planning for Dad differently than we might for Mom? How do you choose a community where a man feels at home?
Men have traditionally been an afterthought in the world of senior living. Assisted living communities have a 7 to 1 ratio of women to men according to the Assisted Living Federation of America. At nursing homes, the ratio is closer to 10 to 1. The reason for this anomaly is simple– men live about seven years less, on average, than women. But why men don’t live as long as women isn’t completely understood. Experts suggest it’s probably due to a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors (particularly men’s propensity to risk-taking behavior and aggression). But the life expectancy gap between women and men has been shrinking for some time, and there is bound to be an ever increasing number of men living into their 80′s, 90′s, and longer – and inevitably requiring care. Senior communities are wise to prepare to accommodate the needs and preferences of a growing number of male residents. Similarly, families ought to be ready to work with their male relatives to plan potential care needs.
Talking to Dad
When an older person is beginning to struggle living independently, a frequent prerequisite to arranging help is the “tough conversation”. Think of it as “birds and the bees” for the elderly, but with much different content: Family members sit down to talk candidly with their older loved one about planning care needs, end-of-life preferences, and, perhaps, moving to a senior community. These conversations are invariably difficult and emotional. But do we approach this conversation with Dad the same as we might with Mom? Many experts would say, “No.” An article at the Illinois Council on Long Term Care website notes:
“The aging process can be difficult for both men and women, but research has shown that men generally have a harder time in adjusting to the changes. Conditioned throughout their lives to be strong, controlling and independent, men can be devastated by the losses that are associated with aging. They may feel that they no longer have anything to contribute to society and may find it very difficult to depend on others for everyday tasks.”
Professor Carol Gilligan, author of renowned book about gender differences, In a Different Voice, believes there are fundamental differences in the communication styles of men and women. Her ideas, while not universally accepted, may provide some insight about how to approach this “tough conversation” with a father or other male loved one.
According to Gilligan’s ideas, here are some key characteristics of men’s psychology and communication styles. Let’s look at these characteristics, and discuss how they might relate to the best way to approach the “tough conversation” with Dad:
- Independence. Gilligan notes that men tend to value independence more than women, so when talking with Dad about care plans, emphasize what measures can be put in place to maximize his independence, now, and in the future.
- Leadership. Similarly, Gilligan posits that men like to be the leader, so involve Dad in decision-making to the utmost so that his sense of autonomy isn’t diminished. Allow him to “take a commanding role” in the process as much as possible.
- Matter-of-factness. According to Gilligan, men communicate and understand in a more matter-of-fact style. So don’t beat around the bush when talking to dad about care needs. Explain your concerns in straight-forward, plain language rather than using euphemism.
- Present-focus. All people have what psychologists call a “present bias,” but according to Gilligan, this holds especially true for men. This focus on the present can be a challenge when discussing future needs with Dad. He may think, “I’m hanging in there now, so why worry about tomorrow?” The way to breakthrough this obstacle may be to take advantage of another male characteristic that Gilligan describes, their tendency for logic and rational thinking. Explain to Dad that, “You may be okay now, but aging and all it entails can’t be avoided, so plan now while you still can.”
- Black and white thinking. According to Gilligan, men tend to think in more “black and white” terms rather than “shades of gray.” Try to avoid unnecessary nuance when talking to Dad about his needs and his future.
Are Assisted Living Facilities Getting It Wrong?
Even if you have persuaded Dad that a change may be necessary, a challenge for families is that many communities aren’t “gender friendly.” One might imagine, perhaps somewhat shallowly, that many men would find a ratio of seven women to every man to be a dream come true, but the fact is that a good deal of senior communities don’t offer a lot for men. In a recent Washington Post article, journalist Pam Gerhardt describes her search for assisted living for her father:
“I noted the doilies and chintz while searching for a suitable assisted living facility for my father. Right away, I knew I was up against a powerful force. The female problem. Every place I visited, I was overwhelmed by potpourri and teddy bears with bows. A typical day’s activity? ‘Manicure afternoons’… Where is poker night? Where’s the movie night featuring Saving Private Ryan or Master and Commander?”
Since, as we’ve noted, there are many more women at senior living communities than men, Ms. Gerhardt’s observations aren’t completely surprising. But, as we also noted previously, the disparity is shrinking and senior living communities will need to adapt.
In the meantime, there are most certainly communities that aren’t hyper-feminized. Here are some tips for those who are searching for a senior community for their father, or another male loved one – tips to help you find the right environment for the “man’s man” in your life:
- Talk to the community’s Activity Director about what activities are offered that male residents seem to enjoy.
- Ask the community if there are opportunities for male residents to help out around the community. The article quoted above, by the Illinois Long Term Care Council, also notes, “Men may enjoy doing tasks around the facility such as leading an activity program, fixing an item, or writing a newsletter column.”
- Ask about the number of men at the community, and look for one where men are at least 20%-25% of the residents (senior communities with a proportion of men much higher than that are quite rare).
- When visiting a senior community that your family is considering, talk to some of the men who live there. Ask them their candid thoughts about their home. What do they do for fun? Are the activities enjoyable? Are there opportunities for male bonding?
- Take a look around the community. Is there a pool table? Card room? A putting green outside? Are there common areas for men to congregate and socialize? How many men to do you see?
- Contact A Place for Mom. Our local Senior Living Advisors know the culture of the communities in their respective areas, so they can help you identify locations where a man might feel most comfortable.
It’s difficult to avoid succumbing to stereotypes when discussing gender differences, and we recognize that masculinity takes many forms, but even stereotypes are often grounded in a kernel truth. The ideas outlined in this article may be particularly pointed for older men, whose formative years preceded the women’s revolution and the rise of the man who is “in touch with his feminine side”. But these guidelines and ideas are intended to be food for thought rather than hard and fast rules, as you’re the one who knows your dad best.
Do you have thoughts about how to approach the “tough conversation” with Dad, about men’s role at senior communities, or about finding communities where men fit in? If you’re a man who lives at a senior community, what are your thoughts? Please join the conversation by commenting below.
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