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Black men are a hidden segment of caregivers. It's stressful but rewarding, too

Robert Turner is with his dad, Robert Turner, Sr. As a professor and researcher, the younger man is studying the significant portion of African American men who are caregivers.
Ashley Milne-Tyte for NPR
Robert Turner is with his dad, Robert Turner, Sr. As a professor and researcher, the younger man is studying the significant portion of African American men who are caregivers.

Robert Turner didn't expect the last 24 hours to go this way.

His father, who's 85, ended up in the hospital overnight. Turner has just picked him up and helped him into the car so he can take him back to the family home in Piscataway, New Jersey.

Once he's back in the driveway of the house he grew up in, Turner eases his dad out of the car and with the help of their home health aide, supports him up the stairs and settles him into a chair in the living room.

"It's good to be back from the hospital, right?" he asks his father, as the two sit eating ice cream together. His dad agrees.

Turner is one of a growing group: Black male caregivers. Almost 40 percent of caregivers of older adults are men, and a third of that group is Black. But Black men face some issues other guys don't. One is their health: African-American men have the worst health outcomes of any group in the U.S. They are less likely to be married than other caregivers, and more likely to be taking care of someone by themselves. As a group, they also deal with negative perceptions of who they are.

"Black men in America, given our profile and treatment, many men feel as though life is stressful on so many different levels," says Turner.

Several years ago Turner brought his personal and professional lives together when he decided to research Black male caregivers. His day job is as an associate professor in the school of medicine and health sciences at George Washington University. He specializes in sociology and neurology, and he's been conducting a study into the brain health of Black men who look after someone with dementia.

"My hero in life"

Turner's father, also called Robert, has Alzheimer's. He was quiet and withdrawn at the hospital, but perks up as soon as he gets back to his familiar surroundings, smiling and chatting. The mango ice cream his son bought is a little difficult to eat given the new cast on his arm, but he doesn't let that stop him.

Robert Turner, Sr. holds a picture of himself as a young Marine.
/ Ashley Milne-Tyte for NPR
/
Ashley Milne-Tyte for NPR
Robert Turner, Sr. holds a picture of himself as a young Marine.

The elder Robert Turner joined the Marines at 19 years old, became an electrician, had four kids, and in later years was a deacon at his church. Turner has been taking care of his dad since his mom died two years ago. He is his father's eldest child, and the two have always been close.

"It's been an amazing experience for me," says Turner. "It has given me this incredible time to reflect back on our relationship and...how many of the traits that I have are because I've learned from him, and looked up to my dad as my hero in life."

Turner explains that the majority of research on caregiver stress has been carried out on women, and says he was keen to redress the balance.

He says it's not just that African-American men have poorer health than other Americans, and run up against societal stereotypes. "They rate that they have more of a financial burden being a caregiver than any other group."

Turner will publish the results of his study later this year.

"We're trying to understand the stress related to caregiving in Black men, both physiological stress and neurocognitive functions," he says. He has a control group of non-caregiving Black men alongside one of caregivers. He says even the non-caregivers were glad to sign up to the study because, as one told him, "This is the first time anyone has asked me to participate in a study that focuses on Black men."

Doing everything he can

Family relationships are one of the trickier aspects of caregiving. Diane Mariani oversees the Caring for Caregivers program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

"Sometimes there's a large family, but no one else is asking, 'What can I do?' or providing support" she says. "There's a lot of excuses."

That lack of help can add to feelings of isolation and overload in a role many men choose not to discuss publicly. But it's not all bad. Mariani found that African-American caregivers in her program reported lower emotional strain and found greater meaning in their caregiving roles than their white counterparts.

She says research has found that caregivers in the program do better, with less anxiety and depression, and so do the older people they care for. They have "fewer hospital stays, and shorter lengths of stay that are spent in the hospital," Mariani says, showing how tightly connected caregiver and care recipient are.

Don Williams commutes each month from his home in Maryland to care for his mother in Augusta, Georgia. She just turned 97. He is a member of a faith-based caregivers support group of African-Americans that meets online.

"My faith has gotten me through so many different things over my life," he says. "I know that it helps sustain me and helps me make decisions that I need to, because I couldn't do this by myself."

Williams is a widower, and in 2020, just as the pandemic hit, he found out that he had metastatic prostate cancer. He's fit his caregiving trips alongside his cancer treatment, which just wrapped up. He says all this has been a strain. But his mother looked after him, and he says looking after her has been a loving duty.

"If my mother leaves this world before me, I'll know I will have done everything I could to contribute to her quality of life," he says.

Robert Turner feels the same way. His dad has good and bad days. But even on a day that began in the hospital, he's cheerful.

His dad used to be a keen whistler, but Turner says as his disease has progressed he's turned to singing. This afternoon he launches into the first verse of "When the Saints Go Marching In" while Turner sits on the arm of his dad's chair and listens.

"He has shown me every step of the way how to be a man," says Turner. "Even now in his state he is showing me what dignity and what grace is, and what honor and respect [are], and how to age gracefully."

Turner says he's looked up to his father all his life, and he'll be there as long as his dad needs him.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ashley Milne-Tyte

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