Twenty-somethings who move back in with their parents after college are often lamented as "boomerangs." But increasing numbers of seniors are moving in with their adult children and grandchildren as well. Over 3.6 million parents lived with their adult children in 2007, according to recently released U.S. Census Bureau data, up 60 percent from 2000. "It's a return to much closer intergenerational ties than we saw through much of the 20th century," says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College and author of The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America's Changing Families.
A trouble-free arrangement? Not so much. Here's how to navigate the potential land mines of multiple generations sharing the same home.
Sharing the bills. Living in a group almost always cuts the living expenses of all involved. "When you have highly stressed parents raising kids, there is a sort of win-win situation when you have a parent that you are close to helping with child care or housing costs," says Coontz.
Here is one case study: Allegra Hinkle, 55, a media technician, was having trouble affording housing in Olympia, Wash., while her husband, David Stein, worked abroad as a photographer in Amsterdam. Hinkle's son, Dustin Hinkle-Anderson, 28, a chef, was also balking at high housing costs for himself, pregnant girlfriend Courtney Norman, and their 2-year-old daughter. The extended family of four had moved into a house by July 2007 that Hinkle had previously rented to college students. The primary mortgage is $850 a month plus $200 for taxes and insurance. Dustin and Courtney pay $700 and Allegra pays the remaining monthly balance, which they can afford more comfortably than separate accommodations. When Hinkle leaves the house to visit her husband abroad, Dustin and Courtney will pay $800 and Allegra will kick in the rest to hold her spot. David Stein will also spend the summer in the house.
"We will probably see more of parents moving in with their children to combine households to cut down on costs," says Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of Nobody's Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship With Your Mother and Father. "If you have a positive relationship with your parents and your spouse and children get along with your parents, economically it seems like it would make good sense."
Raising the (grand) kids. Reliable day care often claims a large chunk of a working parent's budget. But live-in grandparents sometimes share child-care responsibilities. Hinkle spends her mornings caring for her granddaughter, Adaline. "I get her up and feed her, and then I head off to work and [her mother] Courtney takes over--no day care needed." But there is also a high potential for conflict over parenting strategies. "Be very respectful of your child's parenting style, even if it differs radically from yours," cautions Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and author of When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don't Get Along. "Unless advice is requested, try to not intervene."
Finding your space. Cramped living spaces can lead to problems. Hinkle has her own bedroom and bathroom in her shared 1,400-square-foot, three-bedroom house and private entrances to the front and back. "I think it's really important that you still have your own space that is just yours," says Hinkle. "I don't have to ingress or egress through their parts of the house." Discussing ground rules before the parent moves in can ease tensions. Figure out who will do the cooking, shopping, laundry, household chores, and child care, and decide how expenses will be shared. Hinkle typically cooks separately from the rest of her family and has her own cupboard and refrigerator shelves. "Once in a while, we have dinner together or invite my daughter over and Courtney's son [from a previous marriage]," says Hinkle.
Caring for elders. Sometimes adult children have their parents move in to avoid a nursing home. Nancy Koppelman, 50, an American studies teacher, moved in her 80-year-old mother, Ruby Koppelman, a retired art teacher, in mid-May. Also sharing the 2,200-square-foot house in Olympia, Wash., are Koppelman's husband, Steve Blakeslee, and two kids, 14 and 8. Ruby, who has Alzheimer's disease, goes to adult day care every day while the rest of the family is at work or school.