Sharing a Roof With Your Kids and Aging Parents: How to Make it Work
By Lisa Wirthman
As more young adults return to the nest—or fail to leave it in the first place—the number of people living in multigenerational households has doubled since 1980. A record 57 million Americans now share a roof with other generations, reports Pew Research. And among young adults ages 25-34, who are also delaying marriage and parenting, one in four now live at home.
Reasons for the uptick include a spike in economic need after the Great Recession and an increase in immigrant populations from cultures and countries where multigenerational households are the norm, reports Pew.
The Benefits of Sharing a Home
Although there are challenges to these shared living arrangements, there are many benefits as well, said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, an organization that advocates for intergenerational collaboration. Living in multigenerational households often strengthens family relationships and creates more resources, such as help with childcare and sharing household costs.
“Many families came together by need, and they stay together by choice,” says Butts.
Dolores Bryant, a licensed clinical social worker, understands the give and take of multigenerational households. She shares a home near Trenton, N.J., with her 86-year-old mother, her 23-year-old daughter and her 26-year-old niece, whom she helped raise.
Bryant is the head of the household and a caregiver for her mother. Both her daughter and her niece attended college and are working, but can’t afford to live on their own. They help Bryant pay for groceries, share the chores and, most importantly, help care for their grandmother.
All three women schedule their work and free time to provide around-the-clock care with the help of a part-time health aide during the day. “We are all helping each other,” says Bryant, who cannot afford full-time health care for her mother and relies on assistance from the younger women.
“Having my daughter and my niece in my household gives me some flexibility,” she says. “It’s still stressful and it’s still tight, but we do have that sense that we’re in it together and that this is a labor of love.”
Communication and Privacy
Strong communication is important to keeping the peace in multigenerational households, says Butts. Families thinking about sharing a home should have a serious sit-down discussion covering their expectations about finances, chores and privacy, she advises.
“If they are not clear about the reasons for living together, the length of time and how they’re going to address issues and responsibilities, it causes conflict, which can build and build and build and finally blow,” she says.
Privacy is another important consideration, including making sure that family members have their own space and their own time to spend alone or in smaller family units, says Butts.
The Sandwich Generation
The greatest challenges in multigenerational living, however, may be faced by the “Sandwich Generation”—middle-aged adults who care for both aging parents and young children. About one in seven middle-aged adults, or 15 percent, provide financial support to both an aging parent and a child, reports Pew.
“There are lots of policies and expectations that make it very difficult for Sandwich Generation households,” says Butts. “They’re supposed to be the cheerful caregivers for their parents, and they are supposed to be the perfect parents for their children.”
Yet family-leave policies, for example, often don’t keep up with the needs of caregivers, such as covering care for extended relatives living in the same household, she says. Some states also do a better job than others at funding respite programs that can give caregivers a temporary break from their duties. A lack of support on any front can increase caregivers’ stress and ability to provide assistance at home.
Being a Caregiver
Caring for an adult parent can be overwhelming, confesses Bryant. “We have decided that we can’t cry about it, so we use a lot of humor,” she says.
Adapting to the changing role of caring for a parent can also be difficult at first. “It’s hard to accept that your parent is not the person that you knew before,” says Bryant. “There is a sadness and a loss to that.”
Guilt and resentment are normal feelings for caregivers, Bryant said.
“Once you accept those things and move on, you just treasure every moment that you have because you’re making memories, and you are directly impacting that person’s quality of life,” she adds. “And maybe if we do this, when it’s my turn, someone will care enough to do this for me.”
Originally published on Northwestern MutualVoice on Forbes.com.
Lisa Wirthman writes about business, sustainability, public policy, and women’s issues. Her work has been published in The Atlantic.com, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Fast Company, Investor’s Business Daily, the Denver Post and the Denver Business Journal.