After Plane Crash Injures Wife's Spine, Husband Turns Caregiver, Mirroring US Trend

Male caregivers have doubled in the last decade to 40 percent.

June 5, 2012— -- Life came careeening to a halt for Doug Cook when his journalist wife Radene severely damaged her spine in a Los Angeles plane crash in 2000.

After doctors punctured her spine nearly 80 times for steroid injections, the KFWB radio reporter and once aspiring actress is in constant pain. Radene Cook cannot stand or sit for more than a few minutes at a time and is completely dependent on Cook.

"Our lives were turned upside down," he said. "We liked to do outdoor activities and go to plays and I'd take her out to eat. All that has stopped. And as she has been in more pain, we have become homebound."

Cook, a supervisor at Edwards Air Force Base, is one of 300,000 Americans who are caregivers -- a group that is increasingly male.

The number of male caregivers has more than doubled in the last decade, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving. In 1996, only about 19 percent of those looking after older or disabled family members were men, but today, they account for 40 percent.

Doug Cook, 50, not only does all the cooking and cleaning, but has remodeled his SUV to accommodate a mattress so he can drive his wife an hour away to her doctor's appointments.

He also created a "bed-desk system" so his 46-year-old wife can do advocacy work for others in pain -- and use the paintbrushes for the art she always loved.

Cook was recognized as one of the recipients of the 2011 Brave Awards, sponsored by the international pharmaceutical company Shire Of the 10 recipients, three were men, all representing, "respect, courage, dedication, impact and patience."

"We honor a group of folks who are unsung heroes," said Matthew Cabrey, Shire's director of corporate affairs and community partnerships. "Caregiving is often not recognized or even noticed. Disability gets all the attention, and the caregiver is off in the background."

Cook had helped his father take care of his mother for a decade after she was incapacitated by a series of strokes. "I learned that you do what you have to do -- for better or worse," he said. "The commitment is there."

According to the website Aging Care, men can find their new role helping a loved one with dressing, toileting and managing medications "daunting and all-consuming." Often, they report that they are "burned out."

Men often say they often don't feel comfortable with "hands-on" caregiving duties, like personal hygiene and changing diapers, particularly with their mothers. But that may be changing.

"We have grown more compassionate as we have gotten older," said Richard Nix, executive vice president Aging Care. . "It's OK for men to cry now."

But he has noticed in his own life, helping care for his 90-year-old mother has been difficult. "Ironically, if my dad were alive, my sister would be more comfortable than I would. I don't know if that's an old-school thing … or the make-up in our genes."

Male Caregivers Can't Always Be Superman

But, a report from nonprofit Menstuff recommends that men who focus on the positive aspects, like renewed companionship with a loved one, can find caregiving easier.

Matthew Wolfson of Tiverton, R.I., has been caring for his girlfriend Constance "Consey" Beck since she was in a Vespa accident in 2007. She was a passenger on the scooter he was driving when it came too close to a taxi and spun out of control on a slippery road.

Wolfson said he never even considered not taking primary responsibility for her care. Beck was in a coma for eight weeks, with traumatic brain damage. But slowly, she has recovered most of her cognitive function.

"For me, it was learning I wasn't superman," he said. "And to help her become independent to reach out to others and make that contact on her own."

The 28-year-olds live in a handicapped-accessible apartment and he rarely leaves her side. Wolfson bathes Beck, does her hair and make-up, dresses her and manages her day.

For both of them, it can be "very isolating," without help from others. Wolfson also juggles her care with working part-time at a men's clothing store. As part of her therapy, Beck volunteers at an animal shelter.

"It's as much a lesson in how I take care of myself as taking care of another person I love so much," he said. "The biggest thing is you don't have to do this alone. You can't do it alone."

Wolfson moved his mother into an apartment down the hall so he and Beck have the support they each need. He also draws on his studies in philosophy and meditates.

But, as a man, he also had to learn some of the innate patience, nurturing and "active listening" that female caregivers do so well.

"Give me a problem, give me a treatise to write, we bang it out," said Wolfson. "In caregiving that approach doesn't always work -- using a cannon to swat a fly."

"There is also nothing emasculating about shedding a tear, shouting when you are angry or talking it through," he said.

Wolfson was inspired to switch from his master's degree in philosophy to health care administration and just graduated, hoping to work for a nursing home or in patient care.

He and Cook each received $10,000 as part of their Brave Award. Wolfson has used his to offset healthcare costs and the Cooks, who have benefited from Workers' Compensation, have funneled their prize into legislative advocacy for pain management.

Radene Cook said she is forever indebted to her husband for the commitment he has made to her care.

"One thing is that I can look at the sum of this journey in my life -- the plane accident, the end of the scale pain that will never stop and all that has been lost --- and compare it with this life that Doug has made for me, with all the work and his constant love," she wrote to in an email. "And I can truly say that mine is a blessed life and I am one of the luckiest women alive!"

He thinks the same of her. "Luckily for me I've got a wonderful wife," said Doug Cook, "and her attitude is fabulous."

For more information and to nominate a caregiver, go to Shire's Brave Awards.