To varying degrees, multigenerational household have always been a fact of American life. Over the last couple of decades, however, the numbers have been creeping up. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2008 some 49 million Americans, or 16% of the total U.S. population, lived in a family household that contained at least two adult generations or a grandparent and at least one other generation. That’s a significant increase from1980 when the figure was about 28 million, or 12 percent of the population.
See also: Grandchildren as caregivers.
And there’s reason to believe that the Great Recession is accelerating that trend even further. According to Pew, the number of multigenerational households rose by 2.6 million between 2007 and 2008 alone. In 2009 an AARP poll found that 11% of people age 50 and older live with their grandchildren or their parents, and 11% of those ages 35-44 report living with their parents or in-laws. And my hunch is that those numbers will continue to grow.
I'm meeting more and more grandparents who move in with their adult children because they have lost a job or because the stock market's fall has dashed their retirement dreams. And I hear from just as many grandparents who tell me their adult children and grandchildren are moving in with them because of job changes or home foreclosures.
There’s a lot to be said for different generations living under one roof. In addition to the financial aspect, both young and older people reap lots of benefits from sharing space. It’s great for kids to get some extra-special attention from loving grandparents. And older people report feeling less isolated when they live around children and grandkids. Young adults, too, experience a sense of safety and security when they move back “home” with their parents.
Personally, I think that the benefits of multigenerational living far outweigh the risks. But I also know that there are points of potential conflict. Here are some key ways to keep the peace if you’re living in a multigenerational household.
- Prepare your home. Does your home work for all ages? Can your house accommodate someone who might find climbing stairs a challenge or who might need a walk-in shower or a single-handle faucet? Are you prepared to keep children safe? www.aarp.org/homedesign has information to make your house safer and more comfortable for everyone.
- Prepare your family. Have regular family conferences to discuss issues before they become problems. Ideally, before you move into together you should ask family members of all ages to talk about how they expect life to change, including what they want, what they are excited about, and what they fear. Be specific: If grandparents are helping with child care, how much time will they spend babysitting? What role will grandchildren play in elder-care tasks? How do family members want to handle cooking and mealtimes? It's a great way to see where friction may occur and to head it off at the pass.
- Give everyone some privacy. It’s important that grandparents, parents and grandchildren have their own places — bedrooms, maybe sitting rooms, or even corners of rooms — for favorite chairs, places to watch television, or study areas for homework. People feel more comfortable when they each have little patches of real estate to call their own.
- Let older people live their own lives. Whether they are highly active and independent, or if they are being cared for, older people need to maintain a strong sense of independence. Opportunities to see friends, to continue activities they enjoy, and to have downtime, are important at any age.
- Strive for consistency. Establish — and stick to — routines as mealtimes and bedtime rituals. If grandparents are living in the household, parents should also plan one-on-one time with their children and time for themselves — time to exercise and to keep up with their interests.
- Facilitate loving interactions. Make sure family members have time to enjoy one another. This is especially true when grandparents are living with grandkids. Allow the generations to develop special, shared interests that create bonds and positive memories.
- Don’t get caught in the middle. Often, parents are in no-man's-land trying to please the older and younger generations. You can’t be expected to take care of everyone if you are running on empty. Get plenty of rest, make your time a priority and get support if you need it from a caregiver support group.
- Be realistic. Only so much furniture can fit in a house; people can only be expected to change so much over a lifetime; teenagers are only going to want to hang out with their grandparents so much; elders will only be able to handle a certain volume level on the stereo; there are only 24 hours in a day; and you can only be in one place at a time, no matter how much everyone needs you.
- Make memories. Share stories, look at photos, research family history, and record these things in audiotape or in a video. Have fun and treasure the time. While multigenerational households may be the result of negative circumstances, they offer positive opportunities that many families will never have.
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