Is Multigenerational Living Right for Our Family?

Multigenerational family in the back yard

For decades, multigenerational living was on the downswing. Kids grew up, went to work or college, and started their own households as soon as possible. Social Security, Medicare and other senior support programs made it possible for the older generation to live independently longer, and if they needed care, they might move to an assisted living community or nursing home.

But recently, there's been a trend in the other direction. Consider these common scenarios:

  • The Marksons: This family is an example of the classic "Sandwich Generation" home. Stan and Julie Markson have three teenage children in high school. Recently, Stan's dad, 79, suffered a stroke and can no longer manage alone in his own house. So he's moved in with the family.
  • The Goldmans: Jeff and Stacy Goldman added a mother-in-law unit to their home, as Stacy's mom needed care support. Recently, their youngest son, Jacob, finished grad school and moved back into his old room to save money to start a business — the classic "boomerang child" scenario.
  • The Riveras: Rosa Rivera, 84, has lived in the same house for years. Her daughter Angela moved in a few years ago to help care for her — and now, recently divorced granddaughter Francesca has joined them, with toddler twins Jesse and Sofia.

A study from Pew Research Center found that today, close to 20 percent of Americans are living in a multigenerational household — double the number who did so in 1980. Said the study authors, "Historically, the nation's oldest have been the age group most likely to live in multigenerational households. But in recent years, younger adults have surpassed older adults in this regard."

What's behind this trend?

When it comes to boomerang kids, student loans and the cost of housing are big factors. In many areas, rent is so high that wages haven't kept up with the cost of living. College grads or those just starting out in their careers might live with their parents to save up for a house. Many are likely to stay until they are married (and even after, in some cases).

The number of seniors moving in with adult children also has risen. Fewer older adults have pensions, and many failed to save adequately for their retirement or the high cost of nursing home care. A 2017 study from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College confirmed that seniors with fewer economic resources are more likely to live in a multigenerational household.

The caregiving impulse also motivates families to have elder relatives live with them. We are living longer, so there are more years during which elders might live with disabilities. Demographic changes also come into play, say experts: Asian and Hispanic families have a long tradition of caring for elders in a family home.

Some studies suggest that the generations are getting along better than they used to. The baby boomers, in particular, are more open to the youthful lifestyle choices of their adult children. With less friction in that department, living together may seem more desirable.

Married couples are less likely to live with their parents, but today's higher divorce rate is bringing more single moms and dads with small children back to live with their parents. Sadly, the substance abuse epidemic also means more grandparents are serving as the primary caregiver for their grandkids.

Is it right for your family?

If you're considering establishing a multigenerational household, or if you are already living with several generations under one roof, here are some ground rules to discuss and things to consider:

Is this a long-term or temporary situation? Maybe your father had a hip replacement and needs help for a few months. Perhaps an adult child wants to live with you for a year to save some money. If the arrangement is relatively short-term, you can probably get along "camping out" for a while. But if the home-sharing plan is for the longer term, plan ahead carefully and set boundaries from the beginning. And remember that the care needs of older adults rarely lessen as time passes.

How will living spaces be allocated? Does your home have enough space to accommodate everyone's needs? Does the elder need a single-floor living situation? Will younger adults have the privacy they need? Will anyone have to share a bedroom?

Grandmother with grandchild

Can your home accommodate varied lifestyles? Will teens have space to be teens? Will you need to make home modifications, such as a wheelchair ramp or grab bars in the bathroom? Some families use a sign-up sheet for common areas to avoid those awkward scenarios when Grandpa's poker buddies arrive just as the high schoolers have their science project spread out on the rec room table.

How will expenses be shared? This is an important conversation to have right off the bat. Studies show baby boomers nearing retirement can go seriously off track financially if they end up paying the lion's share of household expenses for both boomerang kids and elderly parents. Work out a budget with the input of everyone.

Who will do what? Make a chore list early on. Everyone should pitch in as best they can when it comes to cooking, cleaning and other tasks. Nothing makes any roommate situation go sour faster than dishes left unwashed in the sink or dirty clothes all over the floor. Remember that old sign "Clean up after yourself, your mother doesn't live here"? Even if you change "doesn't" to "does," Mom still needs help!

Will there be generational clashes? Many a sitcom has been based on family culture wars in a multigenerational household, but in reality, it's no laughing matter and can lead to a lot of conflict and stress. Does Grandma vocally disapprove of the younger generation's music? Does Grandpa smoke? Do grandparents overstep their boundaries when it comes to the youngest children? If things aren't going smoothly, it's time to talk it out. Bring in a counselor if necessary.

Who will provide care? In some multigenerational families, the oldest family members are able to care for small children — a wonderful bonding experience. On the other hand, as in the classic Sandwich Generation, the grandparents may themselves need quite a bit of care support. Boomerang kids can be of great help. Statistics also show that more teens and even grade schoolers are providing care for elderly or disabled relatives, but the family should do as much as possible not to let caregiving deeply interfere with a child's school and social life. If the oldest family members have dementia, or their care needs are complex, consider hiring professional in-home care to help normalize the situation for everyone.

Does our routine include a good balance of alone and together time? The most successful intergenerational households report a pattern of doing things as a family, but also as individuals. If your senior loved one has just moved to your area, it's important to help them take part in community activities and socialize with non-family members. To find some great suggestions, read "Helping Senior Loved Ones Expand Their Social Horizons" in the March 2018 issue of the Caring Right at Home online newsletter.

Multigenerational living can be richly rewarding, but it takes some effort. It may not be the right choice for every family. It's an important decision, and not to be made hastily. Planning ahead gives your family the best chance of making it work.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.