One of the trends seen during our country’s recent recession is an increase in multi-generational households. Multi-generational refers to households containing two generations (parents and adult children), skipped generations (grandparents and grandchildren), or three or more generations. 25% of Americans lived in these types of households prior to WWII, but as of 1980, the number had decreased to 12%. Between 1980 and 2006, a steady gradual rise (about 2% annually) occurred due to increased immigration and young adults delaying marriage. But between 2007 and 2009, a 10.5% increase occurred, fueled by unemployment and lower income levels during the recession. This type of living arrangement may look inviting for many families who are facing the increasing costs of real estate, health care, and child care. In order to enjoy the financial and social benefits of this arrangement, successful multi-generational 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 reason(s) 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 elderly 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, which they undoubtedly will.
Will the physical home accommodate the needs and wants of family members of various ages? Considerations for physical accessibility may be obvious, such as for the 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 utilized and shared. Families may need to be creative in adjusting physical spaces to suit the needs of several generations, but it is important to allow each individual space and opportunity to continue activities which bring meaning and enjoyment to life.
Discussion about responsibilities, both physical and financial, ideally should occur prior to the combination of households, to help reduce complications later on. If grandparents are expected to care for young children, the frequency and duration of child care responsibilities should be clearly identified, as it may become easy for parents to take advantage of the “babysitter that is always present.” The division of household chores such as cleaning and cooking can create difficulties if various generations have different standards and methods which are not discussed beforehand. Special diets, whether by personal preference or medical need, should be considered. 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 may expect to have a greater amount of control over the household as well. In addition, adults who are 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 in the household.
Routines and boundaries are other important areas for discussion. If everyone needs the bathroom at the same time each morning, there is going to be a problem. When junior gets home from school and plans 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. Consistent routines and each individual’s awareness of and respect for their own role in the household can help maintain a calmer 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.
The benefits of a successful multi-generational 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 wider perspective of their family history, and have an adult confidante nearby when a parent isn’t the comfortable choice. Some families may attain a higher standard of living being together than if they lived separately. The Pew Research Center found that in 2009, poverty rates were significantly lower for multi-generational households than general households for several segments of the population. Learning to live and work as part of a group develops skills that can be transferred to situations outside of the home. These are only a few of the many benefits of multi-generational living.
No matter what the make-up of a multi-generational household is, the keys to success are communication and realistic expectations. For some cultures, this type of household is the norm. In the U.S., it will be interesting to see if this trend continues to grow, despite the fact that the recession “officially” ended in 2009.
Karen Kaslow, RN
Keystone Elder Law