En español | When Lisa Cini decided to bring four generations of her family under one roof, she knew it wasn't going to be simple. But as a long-time designer of senior living facilities, she was determined to create a home where her kids would share meals and laughter with their grandparents and great-grandmother, and she and her husband would still get occasional moments of privacy.
This was pre-pandemic, so Cini began house-hunting in person and planning strategic renovations to achieve what she calls her “Master Plan.”
Cini, 52, laughs today when she talks about hatching this idea. “It was a social experiment,” she says. “It wasn't easy. But there were a lot of things that I felt would work.”
Although it's more common to bring together three generations instead of four, Cini definitely isn't alone. Since the pandemic began, many families have had grandparents move in and adult children move home. In fact, a 2020 analysis by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of young adult children were living at home for the first time since the Great Depression.
Cini, founder of Ohio-based Mosaic Design and author of the multigenerational living book Hive, says the reasons are myriad: Some families worried about having access to their loved ones in nursing homes with pandemic restrictions in place. Others cohabited so grandparents could help with younger children as adults worked from home.
It can be a great experience. But without a properly designed or adapted space, families can feel crowded and older adults can risk injuries. Like Cini, Palm Springs-based interior designer Jon Call has been hearing from a growing number of clients considering renovations and redecorating for multigenerational living.
It can be jarring to redesign your home to welcome older relatives, he says, especially if your father-in-law wants to bring “a recliner that looks like Frasier Crane's father's awful chair."
"People get really stressed out because they've been trying to create this perfect life. And then all of a sudden, their elderly parent moves in and life isn't perfect,” Call says. “I think we need to redefine perfect. Perfect is going to look different.”
To make multigenerational living spaces safer and more comfortable for everyone, consider these ideas:
1. Better bathrooms
When Lauren Wellbank's 82-year-old grandmother moved into the family's Bucks County, Pennsylvania, home in 2012, they added grab-bars to the bathroom walls near the tub and toilet. Many families also replace a traditional tub and shower with a walk-in shower, so everyone has easy access without having to step up.
Cini recommends adding a heat lamp for older relatives, who may feel cold getting out of the shower. (In the winter, the whole family will appreciate it.) Another quick fix: Add a handheld shower head, to make bathing easier for anyone with restricted mobility, Call says.
One key: The bathroom older family members use should be large enough so that someone could assist with bathing. Though this may require renovations, you'll want to address it before it becomes urgent, Call says. It's also helpful to have a reasonably large vanity surface, so family members don't have to bend down to get their toiletries from low cabinets.
"Another thing that's really great in bathrooms is having sinks that are without cabinets below them,” he says, “so that if someone is in a wheelchair, they can easily approach the sink.” Just remember that the P trap (that u-shaped pipe hanging down below the drain) can get quite hot. If it will be exposed, Call suggests having it wrapped and insulated so it can't cause burns to anyone's legs. Even better, hire a plumber to extend it and embed it in the wall behind the sink.
2. A connected kitchen
Cooking is a great way to connect the whole family, and renovations can make that easier.
Call and Cini both suggest positioning countertops at several different heights throughout a kitchen – some higher and others lower so all family members can prepare food safely, no matter their height. “It's really fun to have the kids cooking with the grandparents when everybody has a place to participate,” Call says.
One new way to do this is adding motorized countertops and cabinets, as Cini did. “I'm 4-foot-11 and I've always had to jump on a kitchen countertop to get into my top shelves. And that's getting a little tough and a little dangerous,” she says. “So, I've got cabinets that I press a button and they come off the wall and come down to me. And I've got countertops that can go higher or lower in my kitchen.”
It may seem like a luxury, since motors can cost as much as $7,000, but “that's kind of where kitchens and baths are going. We're motorizing them so that they're accessible for anyone at any time,” Call says. “Maybe you want to raise that stovetop so that's out of reach of kids’ hands. Or with wheelchairs, you need to lower it to 30 inches. It creates customization for every person living in that home.”
Another design choice for the kitchen: Add a family communication center to keep everyone in the loop. Cini recommends smart appliances like Samsung's “Family Hub” refrigerator, which has a digital message board built into one door. It also has camera inside, which you can access from an app on your phone. If a member of your multigenerational household forgets to tell you they used all the butter, she says, you can check what's in the fridge while you're in the grocery store.
Don't forget to add a low-tech option: Hang a large dry-erase whiteboard in a pretty frame on a kitchen wall to create a message center where everyone can share schedules and check for reminders.
Alexis Kerr, 44, of Detroit, Michigan, who spent time living with a friend's elderly mother near Kansas City and helped set up her space, suggests placing a large paper calendar on a kitchen wall with colorful markers for crossing off each day. That way even family members struggling with memory issues can keep track and feel connected.
3. Safer stairs and doorways
Multigenerational homes don't have to be all one level. But if you're considering a house with stairs, make sure there is at least one bedroom with its own bathroom on the main floor.
To make stairs safer, Cini suggests painting the bannister a contrasting color from the wall color to make it easy to see. And if there is a door at the top of a flight of stairs but no landing area before the first step, she recommends moving the door frame back to create a three-foot landing area. This way, when an older person opens the door, “they get themselves situated and then decide to go down the steps."
Another key renovation: Call says doorways should be wider than 40 inches to allow a wheelchair (and if necessary, emergency personnel with equipment) to easily enter and exit.
4. Compromise on stuff and style
If an adult child moves home or an aging parent moves in, they're sure to have plenty of stuff. You may need to ask everyone to pare down. But it's important to incorporate some of that favorite memorabilia or furniture into new living arrangements.
Wellbank's family combed through her grandmother's possessions to decide what to keep. Their goal was to make sure her grandmother could see favorite items on display in their shared household, without disrupting the established style of the home.
"There was a bit of overlap in their style,” Wellbank says. For example, her grandmother collected Gone With the Wind memorabilia, which didn't mesh with the family's decorative approach. Her grandmother's bedroom became Gone With the Wind-themed and a few other pieces, like glassware, were worked into the décor throughout the house.
Call says that approach works well: Try decorating common areas like a living room or family room in a more neutral way that pleases everyone. Then let each family member decorate their bedroom in any way that makes them happy.
5. Togetherness vs. privacy
Even if family members love being together, we all need our own space. This can be a challenge in a more modern, open-plan house where everyone hangs out in a combined kitchen and great room, Cini says. Older homes, with smaller more purpose-built spaces may be better suited to this type of living.
These private spaces can help lower the tension level. And they're useful if some family members work or do school from home. “Everyone should not see every part of your life when you're on a Zoom call,” she says.
If your home has a very open design, Cini suggests looking for areas to add pocket doors in order to flexibly section off some spaces. Even thick draperies can help to create separate spaces when needed.
6. Less noise, more peace
Draperies added between rooms can help cut down on noise too – something that can be challenging when teenagers and grandparents share a household.
Some families have begun converting garages into hangout spaces for kids and teens, which allows them to make noise and have fun even if older family members are taking a nap. Also, think about situating children's bedrooms as far as possible from grandparents’ rooms.
One thing that helps: A generation ago, teens played their music on record players that the whole household could hear. Today, they often listen to music and even television via AirPods or other headphones.
7. Maximize the space
Many homes in the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. are on slightly sloped land and “may have sliding glass doors out of the basement to the backyard. That's a great place to put a ‘mother-in-law suite,'” Cini says.
Having a separate suite with its own exterior entrance can give grandparents a welcome break from young grandchildren. Even in places like Arizona or Florida with single-level houses lacking a basement, it may be possible to add on a spare bedroom and bath for an incoming relative.
Along with extending your home outward, don't forget to look upward and take advantage of your vertical square footage: “We have typically a lot of height” in rooms Cini says. “It's a great place to put storage for things that you don't get into quite often.”
Add custom cabinets all the way to the ceiling, then fill them with seasonal clothes or holiday decorations you rarely need. For a prefab option, “IKEA makes these huge modular closets,” Cini says, that “double or triple the amount that you're able to store in a normal closet.”
Her favorite trick with these: Paint them the same color as the walls. You'll gain lots of storage space but barely notice that they've been added to a room.
And to make your current closets more efficient, look into getting a modular shelving system. “You can go to Home Depot or Lowe's and for $150 you can double the amount that you store” in each closet, Cini says.
8. Big help from a tiny house
For some families, an ADU (additional dwelling unit) in the backyard makes multigenerational living easier. Studio Shed, a Boulder, Colorado-based maker of ADUs, has seen a 150 percent increase in sales during the pandemic and has increased staff by 50 percent to keep up with demand, according to Jeremy Nova, cofounder and creative director at Studio Shed.
"Being able to create safe and comfortable multigenerational living situations is a top priority for many homeowners right now,” Nova says.
ADUs generally have just one floor, so stairs aren't a worry. Older family members can have their own space but be just steps away when they need assistance.
Guesthouses like these are common in California, Call says. Costs, estimated between $50,000 and $150,000, vary widely depending on size, design and the part of the country where you're building, he says.
Local zoning rules also vary. Some communities are updating their rules to allow ADUs as they become more popular, while other communities resist giving permission because they're concerned the ADU will be used as a rental property.
"Most municipalities are realizing the benefit of ADU's to the community as a solution to housing pressure,” says Nova.
If zoning is an issue, one solution is to create a physical connection between your house and the ADU, like a short, enclosed breezeway with doors at either end, Cini says. For zoning purposes, that makes the ADU an addition to your house even though it functions as a self-contained home.
9. Lots of light
To see well, older adults need 70 percent more light than younger people. Adding lamps and light fixtures helps, but be sure to watch for cords that might present tripping hazards. Cini recommends adding strips of LED lights with adhesive backing anywhere that you need brightness, including along stairs where an automatic timer can activate them when it gets dark.
"They take hardly any energy,” Cini says, “so they're very easy to operate on a battery.”
One priority: Be sure to light a clear path to the bathrooms at night and add nightlights.
Smart bulbs that respond to voice commands may prevent older relatives from fumbling for switches in the dark. But keep in mind that some may forget how these systems work. If you're using smart bulbs, you can purchase manual switches that connect to the bulbs via WiFi, Cini says. They look and function like traditional light switches, but stick to a wall with Velcro and don't require wiring.
"Smart lights with the switches let you adjust the intensity level. So if a kid goes in there and you know he requires 70 percent less light, he can put it low,” she says, “I have to have my little IKEA light, plus the lights on, to read my book. So it allows you to modify and adjust towards that particular person.”
Stairs, showers, lights, countertops: All these changes may seem overwhelming. But Call says it's important to remember that multigenerational living is something millions of families have done for generations all around the world.
"If you look at Asian countries, or if you look at so many Latinx home interiors, everybody is living together. Why in America is it so strange for us to do so?” he asks. “For a country that believes in family values, we can get back to family values and create homes that work for all of us.”
Lower Stress When Living Together
- Locate bedrooms in separate zones of the house. Ideally, each generation can have their own area of the house. Zoned bedrooms can also be helpful if a health care worker needs to stay in your home.
- Create multiple doorways. Multiple exits can reduce stress and help with traffic flow, Cini says. “When we had my two kids, plus all their friends, plus my grandma, my mom and dad, and my husband and I, it's kind of like a party,” she says. “You don't want to jam up those corridors. The more that you can open up that flow, the less tension is created."
- Don't worry about flawless decorating. The goal is to create a lovely interior where everyone feels welcome, Call says, but it's not about the perfect pieces of furniture. Instead be inclusive, making sure “there's a seat for everybody near the fireplace, whether they're in a wheelchair or whether they're in a crib.”
- Find alternative office space. If you're giving up your home office to make a bedroom for a relative, you may not have to work at the kitchen table. You could convert a closet into a mini-office. Tuck in a desk and shelves, then have an electrician add an outlet if there's none inside the closet. “You can close it up when you're not using it,” says Cini. Though it may not be perfect, “if you can use technology or great design to reduce the amount of stress, then you're winning.”
Melissa Rayworth is a contributing writer whose work has appeared in regional and global news outlets including the Associated Press.