How to Make Multigenerational Living Work

Multigenerational households require communication, flexibility, and respect to succeed.

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Putting three generations under one roof—the most common multigenerational living arrangement—has become a growth industry of the recession and an aging society. Even as the economy slowly recovers, experts expect that more seniors will find themselves in such expanded families. The mortgage crisis and collapse of home values may retard new home formations for years. Rising numbers of older Americans will require caregivers, and will either be unable to afford private care or unable to find professionals who provide it.

[See 10 Key Retirement Ages to Plan For.]

Before World War II, about 25 percent of Americans were in multigenerational households. After the war, rising affluence and a mobile society led to a steady decline. "In 2008, an estimated 49 million Americans, or 16 percent 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," the Pew Research Center reported in a study last year. "In 1980, this figure was just 28 million, or 12 percent of the population." In 2008 alone, 2.6 million Americans became part of multigenerational households.

"Back in the 1940s and 1950s, the common advice was to cut what was called 'the silver cord,'" says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. "Don't take your parents in, experts warned. Don't even remain very close to them. Focus on your own nuclear families."

"Those years were the low point in all of American history in the percentage of multigenerational households, as well as in favorable attitudes toward them," adds Coontz, who also works with the nonprofit Council on Contemporary Families. "I think that there has been a rediscovery of the importance of intergenerational ties in recent years, partly perhaps because marriages have become more fragile, partly because adult kids often delay marriage long enough so that they socialize more with their parents in their 20s, and partly because more democratic and individualized child-rearing values have led to a greater sense of closeness."

Multigenerational homes have also been formed out of family financial crises, with job losses and imploding retirement investments driving adult children and their parents to once again live under the same roof. Viewed from the perspective of the oldest generation in such homes, living in multigenerational homes requires a lot of compromises and adjustments, experts say. Careful planning and constant communications were mentioned by all of the experts interviewed by U.S. News for this story.

[See Surge in Multigenerational Households.]

"The most important thing is for people to be able and willing to communicate what they want, what they're willing to do, and what they're not willing to do," says Dr. Joshua Coleman, a private psychologist who specializes in adult child-parent relationships. There also needs to be joint recognition that when such households are formed, there usually is a power imbalance.

The owners of the home tend to have the stronger position of control. "The person who's home is being moved into may be a little bit more set in their ways of how they want the household to run," Coleman says.

If the adult child has lost his or her job, guilt and shame my be brought into the equation. If an older parent has chronic health problems that require substantial care, this can create its own type of imbalance in the relationship. Imbalances also can be a major source of stressful conflict in money issues. Even if respective financial responsibilities have been agreed to in advance, those shouldering most of the financial burden may have, or feel they deserve, a controlling role in the household.

"Ideally, it's a negotiation among equals where everyone's feelings are taken into consideration," Coleman says. "But that requires people to communicate, and a lot of people aren't very good communicators."

Other situations requiring special attention include conflicts between grandparents and their adult children over grandchildren. Generational parenting attitudes often differ, and grandparents may need to step back and refrain from imposing their own parenting views on their children. Also, grandparents should not be the assumed to be sitters, available on little or no advance notice to care for grandchildren.

Adult children may need reminders to recognize the special bonds and benefits of close grandparent-grandchild relationships. "I think the most positive upside [of a multigenerational household] is that it provides this incredible opportunity for the generations to connect," says AARP family expert Amy Goyer. "A grandparent gets to have a starring role in their grandchild's life movie."

Lastly, Coleman notes, sensitivity is required when key family members are not blood relatives of other household occupants. It might be an in-law spouse or even the friend of a teen or young adult grandchild. Do not assume they will have the same attitudes toward multigenerational living as do direct family members.

[See 8 Savings Tips for Older Consumers.]

Within the home itself, living space decisions are critical to success. "Sit down and talk it through and really try to envision the realities of day-to-day life," Goyer says. "Grandparents should be allowed to have some space they can call their own" but each generation living in the home needs this as well. "I think you're going to be the most successful if you have your own space." If space is tight, perhaps there is a special chair or other possession that can be recognized as belonging to a family member who's had to move into the home. "It's important to avoid making people feel isolated or separated," Goyer says.

Money issues can affect all aspects of multigenerational living, Goyer says. The communication efforts espoused by Coleman are also relevant here. "Each family kind of handles those things differently,' she says, "but I think it's a good idea to make a monthly budget." Beyond what's spent, there can be friction over how household occupants use things, and especially their food consumption. Whatever understandings are reached, make sure the process is transparent and that there are no assumptions that might contribute to resentment.

In a 2009 look at multigenerational living, AARP provided a nine-point checklist to help families, and older family members in particular, achieve success:

1. Prepare your home. Does your home work for everyone, young and old? 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?

2. Prepare your family. Have regular family conferences to discuss issues before they become problems. Before moving in together, 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're nervous about.

3. A place for everyone and everyone in their place. Decide how the living space in your home will be used.

4. Let them live their own lives. This is important whether older household members are highly active and independent or if they are being cared for. Opportunities to see friends, continue activities they enjoy, and have downtime are important at any age.

5. Get in a groove. Consistency will help minimize the inevitable disruptions. Keep to routines such as mealtimes and bedtime rituals.

6. Make a play date. Facilitate grandparent-grandchild interactions.

7. 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.

8. Be realistic. Only so much furniture can fit in a house. People can only be expected to change so much over a lifetime. Teens are going to want to hang out with their grandparents only so much. Elders will be willing to handle only a certain volume level on the stereo. There are only 24 hours in a day. And you can be in only one place at a time, no matter how much everyone needs you.

9. Make memories. Capitalize on the opportunities you have with multiple generations in the household. Have fun and treasure the time.

Twitter: @PhilMoeller