Sunday, January 15, 2006

role reversal

The terms role reversal and sandwich generation are somewhat misleading because they refer to a situation that is relatively rare. They have come into use to describe instances in which children with older parents take a similar kind of responsibility toward their parents as their parents took toward them in infancy. The idea of role reversal goes beyond simple help with routine daily tasks to mean that adult children become parents to their own parents. The term sandwich generation is applied to people who are still taking responsibility for their own children, for instance by putting them through college or helping them to get started with a young family, and who are also making decisions and caring for their elderly parents. The implication is that many adults in the sandwich generation are shouldering unwanted burdens. While there are cases of role reversal, it is by no means true that it is common for adult children to assist their parents to a point of complete role reversal. Federal government statistics on income distribution indicate that parents of young adults are likely to have greater financial resources than their children, and research has shown that older parents assist their adult children personally and financially more frequently than their children assist them.
Studies of intergenerational exchanges also show that help with daily activities flows quite copiously from parents to their adult children. Indeed, a national poll carried out by Harris Associates showed that people under 65 considered one of the values of Social Security to be that it would be too difficult to support older parents without it suggesting that adult children are generally not helping their parents financially now, and that they feel they might have to do so in the absence of Social Security.
While there are instances in which older parents experience a period of helpless dependence on their children, these are usually relatively brief times that constitute a prelude to death. The vast majority of older people maintain their independence until the time when death brings their lives to a rapid close and they pass their property and wealth on to the next generation. The terms role reversal and sandwich generation are not indexed in standard gerontological sources. Rather, they are part of the folklore generated by the media and popular, overdramatized accounts of the burdens imposed by the old on the young.
Harris, D. K., and Cole, W. E., Sociology of Aging. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980.
U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1989, 109th ed. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.


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