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Multigenerational Households Part II

Last week’s column ( introduced background information about the history of multigenerational households in the U.S. and some of the situations which influence people to choose a multigenerational home environment.

In order to enjoy the financial and social benefits of this arrangement, successful multigenerational households must learn to identify and address real and potential complications and conflicts.

The primary factors for all household members to be aware of are the reasons for the arrangement and how long it is expected to last. Is a family member experiencing a life-changing event, such as the loss of a job, a divorce, a move or a return to school? Perhaps an older member or young children require physical care.

Some families may decide to pool their resources in order to move to a larger house or different neighborhood. Understanding the goals of living together and whether the situation is temporary or permanent can assist family members to develop realistic expectations and provide incentives for resolving conflicts when they arise.

Will the physical dwelling accommodate the needs and wants of family members of various ages? Considerations for physical accessibility may be obvious, such as for an individual who is unable to manage stairs. But also keep in mind the availability of space for privacy for each family member, and how public areas will be used and shared.

Families might need to be creative in adjusting physical spaces to suit the needs of several generations. Each individual should have the space and opportunity to continue activities that bring meaning and enjoyment to life.

To reduce potential future complications, discussions about physical and financial responsibilities ideally should occur prior to the combination of households. If grandparents are expected to care for young children, the frequency and duration of child care responsibilities should be clearly identified, since it may become easy for parents to take advantage of the “babysitter that is always present.”

Financial obligations should be clearly understood and respected by all adults in the household, so that imbalances do not become a source of conflict. Sometimes, those adults who are carrying a larger financial burden for the rent/mortgage and other household expenses may expect to have a greater amount of control over the household as well. Adults unable to contribute as much financially may bring feelings of shame or guilt to the situation. Realization that these types of feelings can influence behavior will help guide interactions between family members.

The division of household chores, such as cleaning and cooking, can create difficulties if various generations have different standards and methods that are not discussed beforehand. Special diets, whether by personal preference or medical need, should also be considered.

Routines and boundaries are important areas as well. If everyone needs the bathroom at the same time each morning, there is going to be a problem. When children arrive home from school and plan to do homework, grandma, who is hard of hearing, shouldn’t have the television blaring.

A common source of family arguments is the giving of advice. Older family members may not agree with how their grandchildren are being raised, and all members may be tempted to interject an opinion during a disagreement between a married couple in the household. Sensitivity to the appropriate time to speak up versus keep quiet is a skill which will promote harmony.

Consistent routines and each individual’s awareness of and respect for their own role in the household are additional tools to maintain a calm environment. Regularly scheduled family meetings can go a long way toward keeping the peace if they are held in an open and non-confrontational manner. No matter what the make-up of a multigenerational household is, the keys to success are communication, respect, and realistic expectations.

The benefits of a successful multigenerational household can be both individual and corporate. Older persons have voiced the feeling that being around multiple generations allows them opportunities to interact, which they might not otherwise make the effort to do, and that spending time with young children helps keep them young. Grandchildren may be able to learn and share a special hobby with a grandparent, have additional help with homework, gain a broader perspective of their family history, and have an adult confidante nearby when a parent isn’t the comfortable choice.

As mentioned earlier, some families may attain a higher standard of living being together rather than living separately. Learning to live and work as part of a group develops valuable skills which can be transferred to both social and employment situations outside of the home.

For some cultures, multigenerational households are the norm. In the United States, the percentage of older adults who live alone is greater than that of most other countries, however, that number has been decreasing in recent years. Multigenerational households help reduce the negative effects of isolation for older adults, which is yet another of the many benefits of multigenerational living.

Karen Kaslow, RN, BSN