By Nancy Guberman
Do baby-boomers see care as a normal, natural extension of family obligations? A recent study in Quebec, Canada reveals that if baby-boomers in that province do consider care a family responsibility, they have a much more limited understanding of what this care entails than their predecessors and the state.
Indeed, in a context where governments are expecting more and more from family caregivers, baby-boomer caregivers are telling researchers that they have a new concept of care. From their point of view, family members should be responsible for offering emotional and moral support, and accompanying the disabled or ill family member to appointments. In contrast, they believe that hands-on physical and nursing tasks (bathing, feeding, giving injections, etc.) should be assumed by home care services or assisted living residences.
These findings come from a study we undertook (“Baby Boom Caregivers: Care in the Age of Individualization”) to answer practitioners’ questions concerning the changing portrait of family caregivers they work with. Practitioners were under the impression that this new generation of caregivers was much more occupied and preoccupied with employment and other activities than its predecessors and more demanding of services. Practitioners wondered how to continue meeting the needs of caregivers that appeared to be different from those of previous generations.
To better understand the realities of this generation of caregivers, we met with thirty-nine caregivers (31 women and 8 men) born between 1945 and 1959 to talk about their caregiving experience and their relationship to the baby-boom generation.
Unlike their mothers’ cohort for whom caregiving would have represented their principal occupation (taking care of their husband, children, grandchildren, or parents), baby-boomers who care for a relative have many more central occupations in their lives than just caring. Indeed, a large majority of baby-boom women work outside the home as well as having other commitments. Thus, the baby-boom caregivers we met with were trying to maintain multiple identities such as volunteer, activist, friend or spouse. Their caregiver identity was only one amongst many social identities and they refused to define themselves only through their role as a caregiver.
The baby-boomers in our study appear to have a new conception of care whereby the documented, negative consequences of caregiving such as poor mental and physical health, sacrificed personal and family life, or impacts on employment, are no longer considered legitimate. This conception seems to have arisen in parallel with changing notions of family solidarity. Norms of solidarity are becoming less prescriptive, leaving room for an interpretation of family obligations that increasingly depend on many factors. These include the types of interpersonal relationships one has with the person requiring care, one’s availability to care, one’s family’s situation, and so on. In other words, you are only legitimately expected to care if you have a good relationship with the person needing care and if you have no conflicting commitments that take precedence over caring.
Additionally, many of our respondents spoke about the restrictions they put on the caregiving they do offer, particularly concerning the tasks they are willing to assume and the frequency of their help. Most were also very reluctant to take on hands-on care, partly because this on-going, often daily and even hourly caregiving would make it difficult to maintain their current lifestyles, fulfill their multiple commitments, and also because they feel that much of the hands-on assistance is specialized care-giving that requires trained and qualified workers. They are thus very open to delegating much of the caregiving, particularly the hands-on tasks, to service providers. A respondent elaborated on this reasoning.
“She wanted to have more visits, but technically it’s not possible because we all live far away. I finish working at 5 pm, say. Getting out to her residence, I wouldn’t arrive until 6 pm. I’m tired at the end of the day. I barely have enough energy to make supper. It’s the same for my sister; she has her kids’ soccer practices, lessons for this and that. So… our lives are organized in ways that don’t include her. I hear myself talking and I feel like a real baby-boomer! Very self-centered, but that’s the way it is…”
So although baby-boomers, at least those we met, don’t abdicate their responsibility to their ill and disabled family members, for most caregiving is not their only or even their dominant identity. They are actively trying to maintain multiple identities, leading to what we call the ‘denaturalization’ of caregiving. Notably, the women we met with call themselves ‘caregivers’ and not simply wives, daughters or mothers, indicating that the work of caregiving no longer falls within the realm of ‘normal’ family responsibilities.
Nancy Guberman recently retired from her position as professor of Social Work at the University of Quebec in Montreal and as scientific director of the Center of Research and Expertise in Social Gerontology. She has studied and written extensively about family caregiving and long-term care policies and practices. Read the full article “Baby Boom Caregivers: Care in the Age of Individualization” in a special issue of The Gerontologist covering Baby Boomers for free online for a limited time. See a complete list of the articles in the special issue.