Number of men caring for loved ones with Alzheimer's or dementia more than doubled in last 15 years

By Vikki Ortiz Healy

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 28 2012 4:00 p.m. MST

"It's a sense of duty," he said. "She has good days and she has bad days... I just look forward to the good days."

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."

Doug Wyman was certainly in that category. He desperately wanted to step in and help, but he recognized how difficult it would be taking over his wife's duties after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2005.

While he worked, Barbara raised their nine children in a home kept spotless and stocked with all the family's needs.

But when she began going to the grocery store and forgetting what she wanted to buy, or having trouble remembering the grandchildren's names, she knew it was time to begin training her husband.

"She worked me to death," Doug Wyman recalled with a laugh. "She had me cleaning this and cleaning that. She saw dust that I couldn't see. And I had never, ever washed clothes."

Today, her Alzheimer's disease has progressed enough that the Wymans have hired extra help so Doug can still work a few hours each day in sales and marketing. He purposely structures his time so that he can dress and feed his wife each morning.

At night, he prepares dinner and holds hands with her on the couch as they watch TV before he leads her to bed.

"When we got married, we said 'in sickness and in health,'" said Wyman. "Our generation meant that when we said it."

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."

Herbert Lerner was a caregiver by profession, long before his wife's illness.

For 44 years, Drs. Herbert and Ruth Lerner ran a successful pediatric practice in Chicago's Hyde Park.

The couple got married after meeting in medical school. They had three children.

In the mid 1990s, "Ruthie" retired when macular degeneration began to take her eyesight. Not long after, she began complaining or getting uncharacteristically angry about things.

Doctors diagnosed her with vascular dementia, in which the brain is deprived of food and oxygen.

As his wife began to lose the ability to communicate or care for herself, Herbert Lerner dutifully cooked and fed her. He dressed her for the day and took her to the bathroom.

All the while, he never stopped seeing her, he said, as the woman he fell in love with: a brilliant doctor, a tennis champion, a loving mother of their three children, a creative artist who filled their home with homemade chandeliers and other elaborate projects.

"This is a person you love," Lerner said. "You're not going to abandon somebody you love after 60 years."

The couple has moved in with their son and his wife in Berwyn, Ill. Ruthie, who is bedridden, fades in and out of consciousness. Hospice caregivers have taken over most of her needs after doctors told the family her days are numbered.

Herbert Lerner fills his time now by watching old Super 8 films of their family. Ruthie in her white bathing suit swimming with the children in Wisconsin. Ruthie walking through the beautiful gardens she used to keep. Ruthie playing guitar.

He doesn't take his eyes off the screen, even though he has seen the film countless times.

"I'm reliving all the wonderful experiences we had," he said. "It feels like it was just yesterday."

Then he walks over to his wife's bed and searches for her face, which is buried in a pillow.

"Ruthie, would you like a kiss?"

The hospice nurse helps him to lower the bed's side railing, so he can plant a peck squarely on her lips.

In a rare moment of lucidity, she responds to her husband.


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