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When men are the caregivers

Howard Shapiro enters his third decade of running a caregiving support group for men only


It’s been 22 years since Howard Shapiro convened the first meeting of his caregivers’ support group for men only. “It was just myself and one other fellow, and we got together and cried on each other’s shoulders,” he recalls of that 1991 meeting at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center.by: JANIE L. NAFSINGER/BOOM! - Howard Shapiro

Shapiro had started the support group for men like him — husbands who cooked, cleaned, did laundry and tended to their wives’ personal needs, often around the clock.

“These are men who are the primary, if not the only, caregivers,” says Shapiro, a Portlander who at age 83 is still running the Men’s Only Caregiving Support Group, which meets once a month at Good Sam.

“Ninety percent of the time the guys are the ones washing dishes and changing dressings and bathing their loved ones. Sometimes someone comes to help, but most of the time they’re on their own.”

As the group’s leader, Shapiro draws from the 13 years he spent taking care of his first wife, Beth, after she suffered a stroke. Shapiro knew nothing about caregiving — he’s joked that he didn’t know how to boil water — but the truth was, the job overwhelmed him.

He looked for a caregivers’ support group he could attend, “but probably 95 percent of them were women,” he says. “I wanted to know how guys could be caregivers. I thought maybe I could get the hospital to help me.”

At Shapiro’s request, Legacy Good Samaritan formed the men’s-only group and asked him to lead it.

“I know what people go through, whether it’s stroke or Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s,” Shapiro says.

Taking care of Beth, who died in 2003, was a labor of love — “It was probably the best part of our lives,” he says. “She knew I was caring for her and vice versa; it was almost like twins, if you will.”

But caregiving can be very lonely, he says. “One of the things I tell these guys is get out of the house, or they’ll die before their spouse. It’s a 24/7 job.”

The support group’s monthly meetings draw an average of 12 to 18 members, “men in their 40s and 50s and upwards to 80,” Shapiro says. “They bring cookies, one guy brings homegrown tomatoes, one guy bakes brownies every so often, another brings a pot of coffee. They’re all caring for their spouses; most are retired, and some still working.

“A lot of tears have been shed through the years,” he says. “They feel very comfortable sharing their aches and pains, and they feel safe in that environment that they can speak out and talk about their challenges.”

Shapiro writes a newsletter for his support group and has written for caregiving.com, an online community of family caregivers. He also gets calls from male caregivers all over the United States, which leads him to think that caregiver support groups for men are scarce indeed.

Born and raised in Chicago, Shapiro lived in Lake Oswego for many years and retired from the insurance business. He remarried eight years ago; he and his wife Petra live in Southwest Portland.

In addition to running the support group, Shapiro is a volunteer counselor for the Portland chapter of SCORE, a nonprofit agency that provides free counseling services to small businesses.

He says he will keep leading the Men’s Only Caregiving Support Group as long as he can.

“I’ve been there, I’ve done that. I’ve walked in their shoes, if you will, I’ve called 9-1-l. I’m giving back because someone gave back to me.

“I let them talk — they need to talk.”

Men’s Only Caregiving Support Group

A free group for men who are caring for their wives or other family members in various health conditions: cancer, stroke or heart. Listen and share the challenges of being a male caregiver.

When: 1 p.m. Thursday, April 25 (fourth Thursday of every month).

Where: Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center, Building 2 (second floor board room above Devers Eye Clinic), 1040 N.W. 22nd Ave., Portland.

Info: 503-413-8791

Shapiro’s email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.