|Suzanne Kingsmill and Benjamin Schlesinger. The Family Squeeze: Surviving the Sandwich Generation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998, 199 pp. $18.95 paper, $35.00 cloth.
The Family Squeeze is largely a self-help book aimed at the baby boom generation, to facilitate their anticipation of elder care activities and making appropriate decisions as circumstances arise. Suzanne Kingsmill is the author of popular books and periodical articles, and Benjamin Schlesinger is Professor Emeritus from Social Work at the University of Toronto.
The self-help is good, well laid out, both mundane ("plan as far ahead as you can" ... "try to contribute to a registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) every year, starting as soon as you are able") and wise ("one of the more painful things you have to do as a parent is force yourself to stand by and watch your children struggle to solve a problem"). However, in making the case for how many people should read this book, the authors exaggerate the prevalence of the sandwich generation, and offer a practical and intuitive interpretation that the uninitiated may mistake for a sociology of caring.
The authors bring the concepts home by interweaving the story of Rebecca and Bryan, who in their early 50s start with two teenage children at home, but soon have an older son return after being unemployed, and parents with various medical problems. Later the parents are living with the couple, and eventually pondering about retirement homes. Even the last chapter, which looks at "Planning for the Future," in effect only considers planning at the individual level, not through social policy or welfare structures.
The book is easy to read. The index is limited, but the table of contents gives the story line on the issues being addressed in each chapter, and there are often two or three headings per page so that readers can skip to the topics on which they are seeking advice. The footnotes are placed at the end of the book for those interested to know the sources of data and information. A one page appendix gives "statistics" with no sources and another gives addresses of various "resources" starting with "selected services for seniors in metropolitan Toronto."
Turning to prevalence, the preface makes the claim that "almost all of us are going to find ourselves in a sandwich at some point in our lives" and that most caregivers are women. Later we find that ten percent of the population is involved, and that is only at one point in time ("anyone with parents and kids will likely be in and out of the sandwich more than once", p. 7). We of the baby boom generation like to complain about our problems. But are there any data to support the claim that "today caregivers are providing more help -- and more onerous help -- to more people over more years than ever before" (p. 7)? It is true that there are more frail elderly, but there are also fewer young children, and more independent elderly, more private and public services, and certainly fewer elderly living with their children.
The cited Report on the Demographic Situation in Canada 1994 does indicate that a third of Canadians aged 35-64 have at least one child living at home and at least one parent aged 65 and over. While many elderly parents require some care, and sometimes intensive care, this will largely occur after children have left home, or if they are at home the children are not necessarily a strong burden. In the 1992 General Social Survey on time use, it is found that about ten percent of persons aged 15 and over engage in elder care as a primary activity on a given day. For those who do some elder care, the average time is about 1.25 hours in one day. This survey finds that, contrary to child care, men are slightly more likely (10.5 percent) than women (9.1 percent) to provide elder care. The comparable figures for child care are 16.6 percent for men and 43.0 percent for women. Child care is concentrated at ages 25-44, while the participation in elder care is much more spread out over the ages.
The book makes other observations that are sociologically questionable. For instance, it is mostly failures that are cited as the reasons for older children returning home. While failures are part of the picture, cultural understandings make it easier for children to live at home as they are investing in their future. As another example, it is said that many elderly worry incessantly about having inadequate income, yet the 1991 Statistics Canada Survey on Aging and Independence finds that three quarters are not worried about their economic future and only 16 percent do not believe they will have enough money.
Nonetheless, at some point of our lives, many of us will deal with older children living at home, and with dependent parents, though rarely will this happen at the same time. There is much sensible advice here, from establishing adult understandings with one's children on sharing unpaid work, to thinking about alternatives for retirement homes; from thinking to knock before going into another person's bedroom, to knowing that nursing homes are for people who require at least one and a half hours of nursing care per day.
University of Western Ontario