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Is Multigenerational Living for You?

Sally Abrahms
By Sally AbrahmsJanuary 3, 2017

Aging in place specialists, architects and designers are scrambling to address the demand of multigenerational living. Of course, some families who join forces just make do.

Learn more about the growing trend and how to make multigenerational living work for you and your senior loved one.

Multigenerational Living

Kryzl Tran has a full house. There’s her husband Tommy, their two young children, her mother-in-law and her parents. But rather than feel cramped, “it’s spacious and perfect,” says Tran, a 30 year-old nurse by training who lives in Lake Elsinore, California.

It’s not just that the Trans and Tommy’s mother moved from a two-bedroom apartment. Or that they have a lovely yard like the one Kryzl had always dreamed of. It’s that the Trans live in what is essentially two homes in one.

They may share one roof, but Kryzl’s dad and mom have completely separate quarters: their own bathroom, bedroom, garage, kitchen, laundry area and living room. An interior door with a lock connects their suite with the main, three-bedroom house.

In the future, when Kryzl’s parents move back to the Philippines, Tran’s mother-in-law will claim their space. In the meantime, the area serves double duty: While they’re at work during the day, Tran uses the suite to homeschool her six-year-old daughter and son, age three.

As the interest in multigenerational living swells, builders like Pardee that created the Tran’s “GenSmart Suite” $365,000 home are coming up with ways to limit too much togetherness — and to create flexible space for different stages of life.

National builder Lennar also offers a “Next Gen” model in 14 states, with 100 floor plans.

The Growing Trend

There’s been a rebound in multigenerational (more than one adult generation) living. A 2016 Pew Research report found that in 1950, 21% of U.S. families had this arrangement. That dipped to 12% in 1980, but in 2014 (remember the recession), it swelled to 19%.

“Some people will cringe at the idea of living under the same roof, but looking out for one another makes tremendous sense to many,” says Len Fishman, director of the Gerontology Institute at UMass Boston.

Think about it: Young parents, often both working, need help with childcare. Grandparents often need help with eldercare. Besides peace of mind, pooling resources can mean a better school system, house and neighborhood than they could otherwise swing on their own. It’s also an option to long-term care, with its otherworldly costs. Genworth’s 2016 report states that the median price of:

  • Assisted living is nearly $44,000 a year
  • Semi-private nursing home room more than $82,000 annually
  • Private room, $92,000-plus

Sociologists are also seeing another phenomenon: more adults in their 40’s, for health or monetary reasons, are moving in with their parents. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that those age 45+ who have been unemployed for a year or more is 2.3 times more than in 2007.

Another factor is changing demographics, with an increase of Asian and Latinos in the U.S. who often live in multigenerational households. (In 2014, 15% in this arrangement were whites, 25% Hispanics and blacks and 28% Asian Americans.)

The Pluses of Living Together

Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of “Under One Roof,” found that the majority of those she interviewed liked the arrangement. “They said it was an opportunity to know their relatives as people rather than as a parent or grandparent. There was strong family bonding,” she says.

Jenny Dickerson of Durham, North Carolina, is building a $390,000 house on family-owned land where she, her husband and three boys will live with her father-in-law. “When we asked if he wanted to live with us, we were expecting him to say, ‘no way!’ He is very proud and independent,” she says. As it is, her 75 year-old father-in-law picks up the older boys from school and often takes them for the day. “They absolutely love being with him. I see nothing but benefits for my children,” says Dickerson.

It will also be a boon to the young parents. Dickerson, 41, works full-time at a dental insurance company, while her husband is a middle school physical education teacher. “We can’t live off that salary,” she says.

Her father-in-law plans to sell his ranch house for around $475,000. (The Dickerson’s three bedroom, 1500 square foot home has around $50,000 in equity.) The sale of his house will nearly pay off the construction loan and mortgage for their new 4,000 square foot place.

Her father-in-law will have special space on the first floor with a bathroom and bedroom that can be handicap accessible if the time comes, and a living room. They purposely asked their builder Stanton Homes to omit a second kitchen. “While his own area gives him the opportunity to run away from three rambunctious boys, we don’t want him to feel separated,” says Dickerson.

Does she have any concerns? “I know it’s going to be an adjustment being around each other all the time, with him hearing us bicker, working out who is going to pay for what and if we will do his laundry. We haven’t had these conversations yet,” says Dickerson, “but we are planning to. We are willing to do whatever he needs but don’t want to overstep and make assumptions.”

Not all families are that cooperative or have good chemistry. Living with Mom or Grandma can feel stifling and confining, whether they’re sharing a bathroom or have separate space. Relationships that were strained before can become hostile.

It takes empathy, understanding and work, says experts — and, sometimes, restraint — for a successful set-up. “My mother-in-law will not follow my rules and my parents try to treat me like a kid, but I’m open-minded,” says Kryzl Tran.

“I can go to my room if there are things I don’t like. Ultimately, we always work it out and talk about it. We are a very open family. I have gotten really close to my mother-in-law since her husband passed away.”

Making Multigenerational Living Work

Be clear about expectations and rules if you want to make multigenerational living work. “Nobody’s a mind reader,” says Newman. “Ask for what you need or want.” Discuss specifics, from chores to financial responsibilities to overnight guests.

Before they jointly bought a home near Tacoma, Washington, two years ago, Bob and Myrna Conrad and their son and his family talked about what they didn’t want to happen. They agreed that there would be no TV on the first floor in the great room of the main home.

The two families had lived together for nine months in St. Louis, Missouri years ago, “but that was kind of sticky and awkward. We didn’t have separate space. This couldn’t be a better situation,” says Bob Conrad. A severe knee injury makes his step-free, first floor living area ideal. While the families split bills evenly, in three years, when Bob is fully retired and his son and his wife are working, he hopes to reallocate costs and pay on his 900 foot, smaller square footage.

While Jean Baptiste and his wife, both nurses, pay all expenses for her mother, a widow who lives with them in Beaumont, California, he’s not sure who has the better deal. His sons, 8 and 10, adore visiting her in her downstairs bedroom when they wake up and before bed. She loves to do the cooking. But most important, says Baptiste, “we don’t worry about her because she is right there.”

Do you live in a multigenerational house or are considering it? We want to hear from you in the comments below.

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Sally Abrahms
Sally Abrahms
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