Sometimes adult children take in their parents to help them avoid going into a nursing home. Nancy Koppelman, 50, who teaches American studies at a college, moved her 79-year-old mother, Ruby Koppelman, a retired art therapist, into her family's home in Olympia last spring. Ruby Koppelman, who has Alzheimer's disease, goes to a program for seniors every day while the rest of the family is at work or school. "She's in a mental situation where she is still lucid and recognizes everyone that she loves, but her short-term memory is only about two or three minutes long," Nancy Koppelman says. "She would be fed and clothed and warm in assisted living, but she wouldn't be loved there. She is much more likely to maintain her mental health being with family." Koppelman and her husband, Steve Blakeslee, took out a loan to build an addition with a room and a private bath for her mother, which Ruby Koppelman pays back from her Social Security benefits and her pension.
Benefits. Nancy Koppelman enjoys watching her children interact with her mother. "The whole situation has forced us all to slow life down," she says. "It is really good for old people to have younger people take care of them who love them, and it is really good for young people to have to stretch themselves out of their own immediate needs. This forced them to think about someone else's needs as well."
Yet caregiving can put a lot of stress on family members, says psychologist Newman. "If healthcare needs are fairly extensive, you want to make sure you have someone to cover for you so that you can get out and are not on call 24/7," she says. The Koppelman family has had to adjust its schedule so that someone is always at home with the elder Koppelman when a paid caregiver isn't available.
Carolyn Nutt recruited her two sisters and brother to stay with her mother so she could go on vacation. "The hardest thing for me is trying to carve out some time for me just to get away," she says. "We just don't feel comfortable trusting a stranger in the house to take care of all Mom's needs."
Cramped living spaces can also lead to problems. A relationship with an overcritical or "guilt tripping" parent may be tolerable if you are living apart, but "it can become much more exasperating" in closer quarters, Coleman says. Even in the best situations, adults need their own space. Allegra Hinkle has her own bedroom and bathroom in her shared three-bedroom house, with private front and back entrances. "I think it's really important that you still have your own space that is just yours," she says. "When my door is closed, they knock on the door."
The rules. In a multigenerational household, it can often be difficult to know who is in charge. "You've got the traditional power structure of the parent having authority and the child saying, 'This is my house and what I say goes,'" Coleman says. Discussing house rules before a parent moves in can ease tensions. Figure out who will do the food shopping, cooking, laundry, other household chores, and child care—and how expenses will be shared. Hinkle typically cooks separately from the rest of her family; she has her own cupboard and shelves in the refrigerator. "Once in a while, we have dinner together or invite my daughter over and Courtney's son [from a previous marriage]," Hinkle says.
Each generation should also maintain its own social life. "If your parents don't have a social network, help them create their own so that they are not totally dependent on you for all interaction," Newman says. Places to find peers with similar interests include religious associations, community centers, and volunteer organizations.
Before a relative moves in, it might also be a good idea to decide what subjects will be taboo, perhaps politics or dating. "The parents start to make judgments about the lifestyle of their kids and tell the kids how to behave, and the kids start getting judgmental about whether the parents can date or not," Coontz says. Her advice: Each generation needs its own space and should respect the other's decisions.