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Multigenerations Under One Roof

Parents, kids and grandparents share a home to cope with the effects of recession and job loss

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Life for Phillip Doggett of Columbus, Ohio, isn’t quite as serene as it was when he retired from the state corrections department—before his daughter and her family moved in, and his mother-in-law, too.

Now Doggett and his wife, Diana, share a bathroom with their two grandsons, ages 12 and 5, who sleep down the hall. The Doggetts’ daughter and her husband, Erica and Joseph Blunt, who lost their home to foreclosure last year, sleep in the basement. The living room is a makeshift bedroom for Diana’s mother, who’s recuperating from surgery.

It’s a crowded house for a pair of would-be empty nesters. But the gloomy economy has created unusual living arrangements for the Doggetts and many other extended families across the nation.

Increase in Multigenerational Homes

A portrait of America’s households, drawn from an AARP analysis of U.S. Census data, shows a 25 percent increase this decade in the number of arrangements with multiple generations living under one roof. That excludes two-generation households of parents and their children under age 18.

According to Stephanie Coontz, author of "The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America’s Changing Families," the driving force was often economics: higher housing costs or the financial constraints of divorce, for example. Caring for an ailing parent also contributed to the shift, as did the growing numbers of immigrants, who tend to live as extended families.

Since the recession took hold, however, families are doubling up at a faster pace, experts say, though figures are hard to come by. Massive job layoffs, home foreclosures and dwindling retirement income are fueling the need to slash expenses by squeezing more family members under one roof.

According to an AARP Bulletin poll in March on how the economy has affected the living conditions of adults age 50-plus, more than one in 10 said they live with their grandchildren or their parents. When asked what would drive parents and children to move in together or with a friend, if they hadn’t already, 34 percent cited loss of income.

Contributing to Younger-Gen Expenses Can Pinch Retirements

Divvying up household expenses helps most families weather the downturn, but for some there are adverse consequences. In the case of Hank and Shirley Collins, who took up residence in March with their daughter’s family, paying some of their expenses has put his retirement at risk.

Hank, 58, and Shirley, 54, moved to their daughter Jessica’s house near Minneapolis, about 130 miles from their home in Brainard, Minn., after she lost her job as an administrative assistant. Her husband, Nathan, works in construction, but jobs are scarce.

To help the couple financially, Hank, who found a full-time job as a nurse at a hospital nearby, pays for the day care of their 3-year-old daughter, Alexandra, and takes care of other bills. He is also still paying the mortgage on his own home, which his son is living in while he attends college.

“This is definitely cramping our style. There’s no discretionary money at this point,” says Shirley Collins. “Everybody’s basics are getting covered, but we’re not in a position to plan for our future. We are not going to be able to retire when we would like to. My husband was hoping he wouldn’t be working past 70, and now, we have no idea.”

Members of multigenerational households often cope with many other types of challenges. High on the list is sharing power between parents who are used to ruling the roost and their adult children.

“I was a disciplined parent, and my house was just so,” says Sharon O’Connor, 64. “My daughter is totally opposite.” Three years ago, O’Connor moved in with her daughter’s family in Texas—Tammie and Doug Stevens and their boys, Alex, 13, and Dylan, 11—and learned quickly that the challenges of three generations under one roof can involve even the simplest habits, like what food you eat. O’Connor loves to bake, but she doesn’t do it as much because of her daughter’s penchant for organic food and natural ingredients.

Sharing a bathroom with her grandsons also invited an attitude adjustment—on her part. “I’m not a flexible person, and I’ve had to become much more flexible,” says O’Connor, who divorced about a decade ago. “I’ve learned to not be judgmental and to not have unreasonable expectations. You’re never too old to learn and improve.”


Rewards of Multigenerational Living

For all of the sacrifices that multigenerational households demand, there are many rewards.

“People are realizing they want to be closer,” says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a national group that promotes intergenerational programs and public policies, “and they’re realizing during this recession that we’re stronger together. We’re realizing we’re more interdependent and we need each other.”

Children who grow up close to their grandparents are likely to feel more rooted and loved, says Butts. Multigenerational living also helps parents with caregiving both ways—for the young and the old. And for grandparents? Many find joy in sharing daily life with their grandchildren.

“Saying good night to Alexandra and hearing about her day, I can’t get enough of it,” Shirley Collins says. “Raising kids is a challenge, but grandchildren are a pure joy. This is what I live for now.”

Carole Fleck is a senior editor at the "AARP Bulletin Today."

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