Putting three generations under one roof—the most common multigenerational living arrangement—became a growth industry during the recession. As the economy and housing markets steadily if slowly recover, the financial stresses driving this trend will recede. However, the personal and social benefits of expanded living arrangements can be enormously positive lifestyle developments for some families, particularly in an aging society.
Before World War II, about 25 percent of Americans lived 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," according to the Pew Research Center. "In 1980, this figure was just 28 million, or 12 percent of the population."
"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."
Viewed from the perspective of the oldest generation, living in multigenerational homes requires a lot of compromises and adjustments, experts say.
"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 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 is usually a power imbalance.
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The owners of the home tend to have the stronger position of control. "The person whose 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 may 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." He emphasizes that the best time to communicate is before generations move in together. "It's always easier to brainstorm potential conflicts beforehand then to try to create new rules or boundaries afterwards."
"One of the tensions seems to be over each generation's love life," Coontz says she has observed in her research. "I expected, of course, that the parents would have to come to terms with their children's romantic and sexual entanglements. But I've heard of several instances in which the younger generation living with a single mom or dad has gotten judgmental about his or her dating choices."
Other situations requiring special attention include conflicts between grandparents and their adult children about 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.
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.
AARP has developed 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 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 have trouble 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 will 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.