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AARP Bulletin

3 Generations Under One Roof

51 million Americans live in multigenerational homes. Is it right for your family?

Last November, Tom Moser, 60, a financial planner, and his wife, Kristin, 56, a registered nurse, moved into a Next Gen home in Marana, Ariz., with Tom's dad, Lee, 82, a widower, who had lived 20 miles away. Tom had worried because night driving was becoming a concern for Lee and he "was kind of housebound."

Each sold his respective home and chipped in to buy the $300,000, 3,200-square-foot, two-unit residence. (Tom's living space is 2,500 square feet; his dad's is 700.) Lee pays 15 percent of the utilities and helps with errands.

Tom's sister Diane Weeks, 58, and brother-in-law, Wes, 57, along with Wes' parents, have moved next door into another Next Gen home; their son, his wife and baby lived there for a while, too. Tom's mother-in-law, Susan Liem, 81, just bought the house on Moser's other side. "Everyone has separate space. We're not stepping on each other," he says. "This is my dream of being able to care for one another, but not do it alone."

Tom has his own elder care plan: "When I'm 80, I know exactly where my wife and I are moving: right into my father's place. Hopefully, my son or daughter [now 23 and 26] will slide into my place."

A helpful arrangement

Multigenerational setups were common during the Great Depression but declined once people began to rebound economically. Now, as John Graham, coauthor of Together Again: A Creative Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living, observes, the recent recession has prompted a move back from valuing independence to interdependence.

"Families may be coming together because of the economy," says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, "but they're staying together because it helps them all."

Jason Ng, 38, his girlfriend, Jamie Sonoda, 30, and their 20-month-old baby, Addison, live in a home he and his parents rebuilt on their property in Aiea, Hawaii. His mother, Karen, 64, has dubbed the den "the nest," because she and her husband, Melvin, 69, have private space to watch TV. The two couples split bills equally: mortgage, utilities and groceries. Karen and Melvin adore caring for their granddaughter during the week when Jason and Jamie are at work, and don't charge the new parents.

"I dream of having my own house, but the land in Hawaii is expensive," says Jason. "If I moved where it's cheaper I'd have a 1.5-hour commute. I love where I grew up, and a comparable house goes for $700,000 to $800,000. We got everything we wanted for $500,000 and split that. And we live in the same house as my parents, so if there's an emergency, I'm right here."

Then, the challenges

But the multigenerational housing scenario is not so rosy for everyone. Family friction, strain on spouses, and less opportunity for work and personal time are very real concerns.

Kris Radjewski's 92-year-old mother-in-law has lived with her, Kris' husband, Ed, 55, and their 14-year-old daughter, Lexi, in Lake Hopatcong, N.J., for 13 years. The elder Mrs. Radjewski has taken over the family room in the basement, where Kris' older daughter, now away at school, would entertain friends. Now Lexi feels she has no space for hers. "She's fed up and wants her life back," says Kris, 50. "My daughter needs her mom, and I'm either working or taking care of Grandma."

Ofelia Ramirez, 37, a housecleaner from Kyle, Texas, can relate. She has the 24/7 company of her husband, 42, her children, ages 16, 14, 7 and 6, and her 80-year-old mother-in-law. "The kids like having her around and we get to share a lot of memories," says Ramirez. The downside is unsolicited advice about how to raise her children and feeling she can't have their own friends over for dinner. And yet, on days her mother-in-law is not around, "it feels like somebody is missing."

Ellen Lewis, 49, of Leonardtown, Md., describes having her mom, now 78, live with her, her second husband and her four kids, ages 10 to 20, as "not bliss, but it's not hellish either."

Lewis, who owns two knitting shops, says her parents (her dad died in 2001) were incredibly helpful when she was raising her kids, dealing with a failing first marriage and then dating her future husband. "But the dynamic has changed a lot over the years. You can't look at this as an equal relationship," she says. "It's OK. It's my time to take care of her. I have to remember the good times. I don't want to see her in a nursing home."

Sally Abrahms writes about aging and boomers. She is based in Boston.

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Video Extra

THE CHALLENGES OF MULTIGENERATIONAL LIVING: Members of a household with three generations under one roof reflect on the pros and cons of their situation.

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